Machines that can instantly produce everything from food to flowers are a staple of science fiction. Today do-it-yourselfers have brought the fantasy to life with 3-D printers that lay down thin layers of material, be it plastic or cookie dough, that accumulate atop each other to create any desired shape. The printers, which cost about $1,000, work much like their ink-jet counterparts: A reservoir of material serves as a cartridge, and digital blueprints programmed in advance control the output. The printers can produce objects from model planes to robot toys in layers, in some cases spitting out glue to affix each new layer like frosting on a tiered cake. The technique has been used since the 1980s by manufacturers for rapid prototyping of models and parts.
Now 3-D printing is also finding creative applications in the lab, where scientists are using the advancing technology to help design gourmet snacks, set broken bones, and build cars.
Design Nutritious Cuisine
After the Fab@Home Project at Cornell University put 3-D printing instructions online, amateur craftsmen began writing in about their creations. Some had tried using materials like cake frosting and asked Cornell for help. So in 2010 Fab@Home teamed with the French Culinary Institute to fill their printer’s syringes with goopy foods that could serve as cartridge ink for shapely snacks and started making rocket ship cookies and turkey cubes. The product could then be fried, baked, or flambéed. To maintain the design, cookies were chilled before baking, and meat was coated in tasteless glue. Researchers aim to use 3-D printing to improve nutrition by precisely controlling ingredients and making healthy food more palatable for picky eaters.
Glue Your Broken Bones
This fall engineers at Washington State University printed bonelike material to help mend fractures. They tweaked a commercial ProMetal 3-D printer to spray a plastic glue over a ceramic bone substitute in layers about half the width of a human hair. Bone structure varies considerably (leg bones support far more weight than an inner ear bone), but the printer allows scientists to fine-tune production, creating implants precisely tailored to their location. Eventually surgeons may be able to scan an injury, run it through engineering software, and print out a perfectly fitting body part.
Drive a Greener Car
Futuristically sleek, with a roof just 40 inches off the ground, Urbee is the first car with a body printed from plastic instead of crafted from metal or fiberglass. A 6-foot-tall industrial printer churned out Urbee’s shell in just 10 pieces, says the car’s creator, engineer Jim Kor. Unlike standard manufacturing, not a scrap of material goes unused in a 3-D printer, so printing goods like computers or shoes could dramatically reduce waste.