Most 3D printing projects are somewhat…underwhelming.
When we first heard of 3D printing, we pictured semi-magical printers that could quickly churn out robots, cars, and pretty much anything else imaginable. But real 3D printers don’t tend to work like that; in order to make anything useful, you need to master complex design software such as AutoCAD, and even then, many printer filaments are too brittle to create, say, magical flying robots (yes, we’re bitter).
However, the 3D printing industry is growing quickly. Currently, the technology is primarily used to speed up product development, per Forbes, but people are developing innovative new applications every day.
We looked into a few of the strangest—and most creative—3D printing projects from the last few years, and while we didn’t find any magical flying robots, we came pretty close.
1. 3D printing could change the memorial industry.
Ever look at an urn and think, “man, that really doesn’t represent who Uncle Victor was as a person?”
In any case, one company’s hoping to change that. Foreverence, an urn and memorial manufacturer, specializes in creating unique 3D-printed tributes.
“Families will engage us, and either present us with object ideas—’Here’s a photo of Dad’s car, and we want to turn that into an urn’—or sometimes, it’s more conceptual in nature,” Pete Saari, founder and CEO of Foreverence, tells Urbo. “They’ll tell us about the hobbies, interests, or passions of the person they’d like to memorialize, then ask us to come up with a more abstract design.”
“We present them with digital renders, so they have an opportunity to see the piece before it’s built and ask for changes, then we’ll sort of continue to iterate with them, back and forth, until they feel that it’s perfect. Then, we build it. … Some of them are kind of low and flat, some are tall and thin. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the geometry has to allow for 200 cubic inches of capacity.”
Foreverence has created urns for several celebrities, including Prince, whose memorial includes a scale-model of Paisley Park. Saari says that his designers used the same basic approach with Prince that they’d use with, say, Uncle Victor, and 3D-printing technology allows them to keep costs manageable, even for fairly complex designs.
“Our belief is that everyone has a story to tell, and sometimes those stories are larger than life—in the case of, say, Prince—but at the end of the day, we help individuals and families tell the stories of their lives in unique and personal ways. The fact that we make urns is almost a byproduct of what we do.”
2. Missing part of your skull? 3D printing can help with that.
3D printing has the potential to change the medical industry dramatically. Oxford Performance Materials’ OsteoFab project is particularly exciting, even if it’s a bit creepy—if you’re afraid of spooky skeletons, you might want to skip past this next image.
By mapping out missing bone structures, the company is able to offer inexpensive implants made with polymer poly-ether-ketone-ketone (PEKK), a strong material also used in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. If you’re missing part of your skull and you’ve always wanted to say, “My head is partially made from starships,” you’re in luck.
This isn’t just a proof of concept, either; the implants are accredited in Japan and have FDA 501(k) clearance, according to an article in 3D Printing Industry. 3D printed materials offer significant advantages over traditional implants, as they’re fairly strong, flexible (when necessary), and most importantly, inexpensive.
In the more immediate future, expect to see low-cost dental implants and hearing aids fabricated via 3D printing. In fact, dentists can currently create crowns with desktop printers (heads up—that link opens a PDF).
“The two industries that have really embraced 3D printing as a consumer product are dentistry and audiology,” Saari says. “Anytime you’re talking about an item that’s 80-90 percent the same every time, but that 10 percent variance has to be customized to an individual, that’s the perfect application for 3D printing.”
3. One 3D printing lab reconstructed the face of King Richard III because, hey, why not?
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you know King Richard III as a conniving, hideously deformed hunchback. Thanks to a research team from the University of Dundee, we know that the real Richard III probably looked something like this.
That’s…not so bad, actually.
The team, led by Caroline Wilkinson, used computer tomography scans of Richard III’s skull to reconstruct the king’s face. Granted, facial reconstructions are as much of an art as a science, but Wilkinson believes that it disproves some of the superficial myths established by Shakespeare (nobody ever accused the Bard of being a stickler for historical accuracy).
In an unrelated project, archaeologists from the University of Leicester used 3D printing technology to recreate Richard III’s skeleton for Loughborough University’s King Richard III visitor center. We can only hope that the two teams come together to eventually resurrect Richard III entirely.
4. 3D printed “nano-sculptures” will change the way you think about art.
Some sculpture artists take on grand projects as a way of showing their skill. Jonty Hurwitz decided to go in the opposite direction; his “nano sculptures,” created with the help of a team that included researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, can fit between the eyes of an insect.
That’s not hyperbole.
We asked Hurwitz how he can print anything at that level, much less something as complex as a sculpture.
“Basically, we shine two lasers together that are in phase,” Hurwitz tells Urbo. “And what happens is, because the lasers are in phase, every now and again, two photons collide with one another. That collision of the two photons causes a high energy event, at the quantum level.”
That essentially makes a tiny explosion.
“Every time this tiny little explosion happens, it hardens one region of the 3D object. Each region is probably 15 nanometers or so. These [printing] machines are in the most incredible underground environment, because they need to be separated from any kind of noise. A car driving by a few hundred meters away affects the outcome of the structure you’re creating.”
Given the complexity of the process, it’s difficult to tell where the science ends and the art begins. Hurwitz says that that’s the point.
“I think there’s a broad concept out there that 3D printing is a science,” Hurwitz tells Urbo,“but actually, it’s not. It’s an art, you know? Every 3D printer you work with has a capability, and you have to decide how far you want to push that capability. And the more you push the capability of each machine, the more you move from technical process into the realm of art.”
While his project uses 3D printing, he’s not able to quickly print out thousands of microscopic nano-sculptures.
“I think it’s really important to stress that these nano-sculptures were pushing the edge of that technology to absolute extremes,” Hurtwitz says. “So these weren’t on things that you could just go back a week later and press a button and make another one.”
That’s what makes this next part of the story so tragic. After months of delicate calculations, Hurwitz had created the smallest piece of art in history. He’d worked with a massive team to create his first successful nano-sculpture—a model of his first love, tiny enough to fit onto a human hair.
When Hurwitz received his sculpture, he hired a photographer, then spent 45 minutes trying to find his work of art with an electron microscope. Eventually, they found it.
“When [the photographer] sees it—suddenly, in an electron microscope, this sculpture of a human being standing there—he sort of freaked out,” Hurwitz recalls.
Quickly, they snapped a few photos. Hurtwitz took a moment to celebrate with the other people in the room, but when he turned back, the sculpture was missing.
“I asked the guy, ‘What you done? Where is the sculpture?’ And he kind of chuckled and said, ‘Well, it’s probably on my finger. And that was it. Gone. It was bizarre. It was completely bizarre.”
For some reason, the photographer had put his finger on the slide, demolishing an incredible work of art. Hurwitz had no way to prove that the sculpture had actually existed, so he named the photographs “Trust.” Since that time, he’s created a number of other sculptures, and he now accepts that the photographer’s mistake added to the project’s mystique.
“To some extent, art is about rarity,” Hurwitz says. “And yet, when you’re starting to create digital art—the rarity is sort of guaranteed by the individual who’s created it. There’s a trust to it.”
“But you know what? It’s not my work. It’s the work of all humanity,” he says. “I’m really saying that in the most humble of ways; if you think about the human ingenuity and the process of scientific development, from the first cave drawing to our ability, as a species, to create something like this—it’s quite remarkable. If you think about the number of coders involved in the software and the whole history of mathematics, and science, and physics, all culminating in this sculpture, it was an awe-inspiring moment.”