What Cool Things Can 3D Printers Make?

Yes, 3D printing's made the jump to your home—but scientists are using it for much, much more than you could ever have imagined.

By Damon Beres
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013
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    Courtesy 3D Systems

    Now on store shelves is a new breed of device that may transform your home: the 3D printer.

    The Cube (from Cubify) makes the widely discussed future of digital technology accessible. Consider it your own personal mini-factory for $1,299. Here’s how it works: The unit melts plastic from cartridges you buy (like normal printer ink) and layers it over and over again to create desired items. Want a new bracelet for a night on the town, a set of coasters for tomorrow’s potluck, or a toy rocket ship for the kid? You can download models for the printer to make these items and many more.

    Courtesy 3D Systems

    The at-home Cube can make almost anything you can think of...

    ... as long as your imagination is limited to inanimate plastic objects. However, exciting advances may be coming soon, as scientists push the boundaries and experiment with raw materials. One day soon, you might print your lunch or even the clothes you wear to work. Here, the innovative—and often bizarre—stuff advanced 3D printers can make right now.

    Frank Wojciechowski

    An Ear in a Petri Dish

    Patients in need of new organs could soon be in luck. Researchers at Princeton University earlier this year created a so-called bionic ear that can both send and receive sound. The fleshy concoction reportedly started with cells from a cow, a little bit of gel, and some silver, which a printer made into the shape of an ear. Scientists hope the new body part will interface with personal computers in the future.

    Justin Tallis/Getty Images

    A King's Head

    After archaeologists dug up the bones of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, this year, forensic artists made a digital model of the royal leader’s head and printed an incredibly lifelike version with 3D technology. Everything from Richard III’s crinkled eyelids to his flowing dark hair was painstakingly re-created.

    Rafael Rozendaal via Flickr

    Fashionable Apparel

    In 2012, designer Janina Alleyne printed a runway-ready shoe called the Exoskeleton. And this past spring, Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni crafted a dress out of 3D-printed nylon mesh, as did Iris van Herpen (left).

    The Extinct Mastodon

    Here comes Jurassic Park in real life: Researchers at the University of Michigan 3D Lab managed to print accurate replicas of mastodon bones this year—120 centuries after the beast went extinct. The plaster models open the door for new learning on this prehistoric creature, possibly replacing more traditional, less precise replicas as seen here.

    Uglix via Flickr

    Edible Meat

    Where’s the beef? In your computer, perhaps. Much has been invested in U.S. start-up Modern Meadow in pursuit of 3D printers that can produce meat from animal cells and other materials like amino acids, potentially displacing traditional steaks like the one to the left. This could reduce the environmental impact of livestock and muddy the rules of kosher foodstuffs: If your pulled pork was never actually on a pig—well, you can consider the implications for yourself.

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