Where form meets function

For most people, 3D printing feels like a technological phenomenon that doesn’t yet have a practical application. However, there is a real push to utilize industrial robotics in a variety of accessible mediums. We explore five of them.

3D printing could be the next game-changing technology that impacts our lives much in the same way the Internet and high-speed capabilities reinvented the way people could access and share information across the globe. But what does it really do? In its infancy, the first 3-D printers were developed in the ’80s by an American engineer, Charles Hull, who used an acrylic liquid that turned solid when exposed to ultraviolet light. Now, most people think of printers as an archaic way of producing a record that something exists, but even the tactile needs of showing/sharing documents are being replaced with apps and conversion technologies that can be utilized through smartphone technology. Why would a person want to buy a 3D printer when their 2D model is gathering dust in the corner of their workstation?

While at home use is still in the infantile stage, many fields and disciplines looking to advance the modern world see 3D printing as a revolutionary step forward. From next-level apprehension techniques in crime-fighting, to what might appear on our dinner menus, here are five important examples of how 3D printing will change the world around us.


While DNA may forever be looked at as the key tool in helping catch criminals and exonerating those who have been falsely imprisoned, 3D printing promises to be the next big advancement in forensics. As Forensics Magazine notes, “Creating replicas of pieces of evidence is certainly not a new practice in forensics. For years now, investigators and scientists have used materials such as dental stone to create casts of footprints, Mikrosil for tool mark impressions, and other materials that can replicate the surface of an object either by impression transfer or curing.”

In addition to being able to create a three-dimensional model of something like a footprint found at the scene of the crime, so to could researchers create an actual shoe that they believe the footprint could have come from.

With the ability to make things much larger without losing the detail, researchers believe that printing large-scale, 3D models of fingerprints will help juries make the visual connections between what is deemed a “match.”

In the case of gunshot victims whose injuries don’t allow for bullets to be removed, 3D imaging has the ability to create a tactile piece of evidence – although not admissible in court – in order to better provide law enforcement with what kind of gun they may be looking for.

Other usages in the realm of possibility includes printing a scale model of the first floor in a home where a crime was committed, recreating a physical copy of a weapon found at a crime scene, displaying bullet trajectories through a 3D scanned article of clothing, creating a model of a suspect’s dentition and showing how well a bite mark aligns, printing a scaled model of a collapsed building due to a bombing, and creating test pieces of a piece of evidence that might be used in an experiment.


In April of this year, MecklerMedia hosted the first 3D Print Fashion Show in the world in New York City. Of the many highlights of the evening, designer Melina Looi – who has won Designer of the Year three times at the Malaysian International Fashion Week – wowed the crowd with the world’s first full-length, 3D-printed evening gown.

“When you think of constructing with a sewing machine, you’re always thinking in terms of how to use fabric and thread,” Looi told Digital Trends. “But with 3D printing, you’re not limited to that. 3D printing will change the world. Maybe not now, but in times to come 3D printing will usher in a new era by enabling machines to produce objects of any shape, on the spot, and as needed.”

While companies/designers like Hot Pop Factory have printed jewelry, New Balance has printed shoes, and Ron Arab has printed sunglasses, illustrating that the future of business may be in the fact that no two people’s bodies are the same. Whether that means getting fitted for the ultimate, bespoke piece, or getting body-specific equipment that will increase athletic performance, 3D printing can meet that demand.

“With 3D printing we are able to pursue performance customization at a new level to help our elite NB athletes and eventually all athletes, “New Balance President and CEO Robert DeMartini said in 2013. “We believe this is the future of performance footwear and we are excited to bring this to consumers.”

Additionally, would-be designers no longer have to consider rising costs to produce limited runs of items. Whereas most companies receive substantial financial breaks when ordering in mass quantities, it’s often the more boutique designers/brands who are forced to pay more simply because they cannot purchase in bulk. “I found that there are so many benefits for small designers, designer Kimberly Ovitz told Tech Crunch. “You don’t have to deal with minimum or volume issues. You can design as many prototypes as you want as intricately as you want, and it doesn’t affect anything the way it does with clothes.”


3D Printed guns came to national and the world’s attention in 2013 when Cody Wilson distributed a manual/how-to for a weapon dubbed the “liberator” that allowed users the ability to download a file, press a button on a 3D printer, and add a firing pin – in turn creating a functioning firearm. Two years later, Wired named Wilson the fifth most dangerous man on the Internet.

There are numerous issues at play when it comes to the production of 3D-printed firearms. Since they are manufactured out of plastic and not through a manufacturer, opponents of the new firearms argue that they are harder to regulate because there are no serial numbers, and harder to detect on someone at an event where all patrons pass through metal detectors (although the firing pin is made of metal).

As Popular Mechanics noted, “one doesn’t need a 3D printer to manufacture a plastic gun. Yes, the new technology makes it easier, but there are plenty of other ways to work plastic. So, not all plastic guns are 3D-printed. And, in fact, not all 3D-printed guns are plastic.”

Wilson said at the time, “I recognize that this tool might be used to harm people. That’s what it is: It’s a gun … But I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.” As of 2015, Wilson’s latest creation is the Ghost Gunner, a computer-controlled milling machine designed to let anyone create a metal body for an AR-15 from a simple blueprint.


There is a growing perception in the medical field which sees 3D printing as truly lifesaving technology. As The New Yorker reported, “In February of 2012, a medical team at the University of Michigan’s C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in Ann Arbor, carried out an unusual operation on a three-month-old boy. The baby had been born with a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia: the tissue of one portion of his airway was so weak that it persistently collapsed. This made breathing very difficult, and it regularly blocked vital blood vessels nearby, including the aorta, triggering cardiac and pulmonary arrest.” Unsure of just how to proceed due to both the treatment options and the tiny patient, the doctors turned to 3D printing.

In layman’s terms, the researchers began by taking a CT scan of the baby’s chest, which they converted into a highly detailed, three-dimensional virtual map of his altered airways. Using this model to guide their decisions, they designed and printed a splint made of the same biocompatible material that goes into sutures that would fit snugly over the weakened section of an airway and hold it open and was likened it to “the hose of a vacuum cleaner.”As of 2013, the young patient was thriving.

Tissue engineering promises to be the next great frontier in medicine. While people waste away while waiting for a new organ on transplant lists, there’s a renewed hope that in the next half-century it will be possible to manufacturer new internal and external body parts. In he short term, most researchers and surgeons are focused on what’s achievable right now. For example, young children don’t usually qualify for upper limb prosthetics because they outgrow them too quickly. A non profit, e-NABLE, provides a 3-D-printed, basic plastic robotic hand that can make a fist, hold a ball and grasp a bike handle to children all over the world.


Lynette Kucsma of Natural Machines believes that her 3D-printed invention – the Foodini – will do for cuisine what the microwave oven did for food/convenience when the product was introduced in 1967. “When people first heard about microwaves they didn’t understand the technology, but now 90% of households have microwaves,” she tells Fortune. “We see the same thing happening with 3D food printing, but on a much faster scale because we adopt technology faster and the technology advances faster.”

While one would like to think that 3D printing is this space-aged technology, in the food world, it just makes challenging recipes a little more accessible by streamlining the process. Users first select a recipe, then the machine make the individual components of the dish from scratch and put the components into Foodini’s stainless steel ingredient capsules.

According to The Washington Post, additional and practical uses of 3D printing in the culinary field include edible, wedding cake toppers, easily eaten vegetables for seniors with problems chewing, alternative protein sources from algae and insects which could be transformed into interesting foods with a texture people will like, and more.

For more futuristic content, check out 5 Sci-fi technologies ready to change fashion.

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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