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How 3-D Printing Works

The 3-D Printing Revolution

3-D printed violin, Laurent Bernadac
Laurent Bernadac plays a 3-D printed violin during the 2017 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM

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Increasing availability and affordability of 3-D printing solutions has made the technology attractive to people across many industries. For example, the automotive industry has used 3-D printing technology for many years for rapid prototyping of new auto part designs. The picture above shows a manifold prototype created by the Piedmont Triad Center for Advanced Manufacturing (PTCAM).

The medical profession eagerly adopted 3-D printing for a number of uses, such as printing prosthetics. Traditional professionally made prosthetics can be expensive, but a 3-D printer could make a prosthetic hand for as little as $50 [source: Amputee Coalition]. Similarly, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has used 3-D printing to produce models that surgeons can use as a guide for facial reconstructive surgery [source: King]. Several professional 3-D printer manufacturers sell machines specifically designed for dental work.

Engineers in the aerospace industry incorporate 3-D printing to help test and improve its designs as well as to show off how well they work [source: Gordon]. Research company EADS has an even bolder ambition for 3-D printing: to manufacture aircraft parts themselves, including an entire wing for a large airplane. EADS researchers see this as a green technology, believing 3-D printed wings will reduce an airplane's weight and, thus, reduce its fuel usage. This could cut carbon-dioxide emissions and the airline around $3,000 over the course of a year. [source: The Economist]

3-D printing also has some interesting aesthetic applications. Designers and artists are using it in creative ways to produce art, fashion and furniture. Graphic artist Torolf Sauermann has created colorful geometric sculptures using 3-D printing [source: Jotero GbR]. Freedom of Creation (FOC), a company in the Netherlands, sold 3-D printed products made from laser-sintered polyamide, including lighting with intricate geometric designs and clothing designs consisting of interlocking plastic rings that resemble chain mail. FOC also has a number of corporate clients using its design and print services, including Philips, Nokia, Nike, Asics and Hyundai [source: FOC].

A tastier application of 3-D printing technology comes from the chocolate industry, which has developed machines that can create unique confectionary items. Although unsuitable for mass production, 3-D printers can make computer-designed objects as prototypes, or just as unique, customized treats [source: Ooi]. Looking for something a little more savory? You can use 3-D printers to create many types of food – it has to be something you can puree to get it into the machine – but you can make burgers with 3-D printing. One thing to note: Printed food has a different texture than traditional food [source: Houser].

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