Social Innovation

10 ways 3D printing can change the world

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
Editorial Lead, World Economic Forum
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A biotech company in San Francisco may have found a way to save the rhino, which is in danger of being hunted to extinction due to high demand for its horns. US start-up Pembient has come up with an ingenious way to undercut demand – by 3D printing cheap horn replicas and using them to price poachers out of the market. Made with keratin and rhino DNA, the synthetic horns carry the same genetic fingerprint as the genuine article, but sell at a mere one-eighth of the price.

Endangered rhinos aren’t the only thing benefiting from 3D printing, however. Here are 10 other ways this revolutionary new technology is making the world a better place.

  1. Touchable pictures

Imagine if the blind and visually impaired could be given the chance to “see” photographs. Californian company Pirate3D have made it possible to do this via an affordable home printer called the Buccaneer. Users can print a 3D version of a photograph and visualize it via touch. The perks of 3D imaging don’t end there: thanks to Estonian company Wolfprint 3D, expectant mothers can now also create 3D models of their unborn babies.

  1. Body parts made for you

Due to the customization abilities of 3D printers, it will soon be possible to create implants that fit our individual needs and differences. This means better body parts all round – from bone implants to prosthetic limbs and devices used by dentists.

  1. Lightweight casts for broken bones

The Cortex exoskeletal cast is a light, washable, breathable and recyclable alternative to the traditional plaster cast. Not only is it more wearable and hygienic than its predecessor, but it is based on and X-ray and 3D scan of the patient’s fracture and modelled accordingly.

  1. Faster medical progress

3D printing technology will allow new discoveries in medicine to happen faster, since new prototypes will be modelled quicker. This will save a lot of the time and money spent on research. With the advent of printers that can create instant customized implants, mortality rates in hospitals and emergency rooms are expected to fall.

  1. Stronger, safer vehicles

With some car companies already using 3D printed parts to increase the strength and safety of their products, it won’t be long until airlines follow suit. Building planes with 3D-printed components will make them lighter and stronger. It will also make them cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

  1. Better, cleaner factories

The 3D printing of a drivable plastic car in 44 hours heralds a new world in which motor companies can 3D print entire cars, in one piece. This will improve the efficiency of assembly lines, reduce the number of factory workers required and lessen the waste produced by the industry.

  1. Faster design and innovation

In the world of design and manufacturing, everything from new car models to food and clothing can be designed more rapidly, helping to bring products to the market faster. Given that 3D printers save time and money, designers will be able to pay more attention to streamlining the function of their inventions.

  1. Less pollution from shipping

3D print shops could one day proliferate on high streets and in shopping centres, as places where online customers can go to collect the printed-out products they ordered. This would greatly reduce the number of items being shipped around the world, cutting down on the carbon footprint of e-commerce.

  1. Better education

Education – specifically science, technology, engineering and maths – will benefit enormously from 3D printing technologies. A number of schools already have 3D printers, but the number will rise as the retail costs continue to fall. Low-cost and speedy printers make school subjects more engaging than ever before.

  1. The power of small packages

Researchers at Harvard have discovered a way to 3D print lithium-ion batteries “smaller than a grain of sand”. These microbatteries can be used in the manufacture of all sorts of miniaturized devices, from medical implants to tiny insect-like flying robots.

Author: Anna Bruce-Lockhart, digital editor, World Economic Forum

Image: Xiaocheng, 6, whose left hand was partially amputated after a car accident when he was 4, demonstrates grabbing a paper cup with a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, at a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

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