Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is bringing us one step closer to that machine on "Star Trek" that could make anything we want at the touch of a button. The technology works by progressively overlaying thin layers of material on top of one another, and it’s used for everything from tooth fillings to jewelry. Now that the hardware is cheap enough for hobbyists to buy, it’s being used for even weirder stuff. Here are ten of the craziest items we’ve ever seen come out of a 3D printer.
It was only a matter of time before some genius decided to use 3D printing to make a car. Tech companies Stratasys and Kor Ecologic teamed up in 2010 to develop a two-passenger hybrid car that has a chassis completely composed of 3D printed material. The Urbee, as they dubbed it, has a futuristic form factor that looks like something from "The Jetsons," and a high-tech interior to boot. This thing has some sick fuel efficiency, too, getting up to 200 miles per gallon on the highway. It also recharges in the garage and runs for longer distances on an ethanol engine.
A Sex Toy
Is there anything more personal than a sex toy? Don’t answer that question, we really don’t want to know. It’s not surprising that the 3D printing revolution has made its way to the erotic world, and one of the strangest manifestations is “Grand Old Party,” a series of butt plugs by artist Matthew Eppler that took polling data from the 2012 Republican presidential primary and rendered each candidate’s approval rating as a curvaceous sex toy. We’re refraining from making any jokes about how screwed our country is here.
It’s not just plastic that can be fed through a 3D printer. New York University student Marko Manriquez was captivated by the technology and decided to use it to produce something that he’s passionate about: Mexican food. Hence the creation of BurritoBot, a customized printer that creates burritos to order based on user input of salsa, sour cream, guacamole and more. It’s a goofy take on the concept but it sure does make a good burrito.
One of the more interesting aspects of the 3D printing craze is the idea of making clothes that are really “ready to wear” by tailoring them to the contours of your body right out of the machine. One of the firms at the cutting edge of this trend is Continuum, which uses additive manufacturing to produce a wide variety of products. Probably most interesting is the N12 bikini top, which is layered from microscopic particles of nylon in a complex interlocking circle pattern to produce a flexible and attractive piece of swimwear. Could a thong be next?
An Unborn Fetus
One of the worst things about being friends with prospective parents is having to look at blurry ultrasound pictures of their developing spawn. Seriously, those things just look weird, like X-Files aliens or something. But Japan has an answer. The Parkside Hiroo Ladies Clinic in Tokyo teamed up with Fasotec, an engineering company, to produce 3D models of unborn children for proud parents to show off. Known as the “Shape of an Angel” model, it interprets multiple ultrasound readings into a single 3D shape, which is then cast in white resin and “floated” in clear resin. At about $1,200, it’s not cheap.
There are several people laboring to create working firearms with their 3D printers, including one ambitious effort to make the whole thing from scratch. But so far, only one person has managed to produce firearms that actually work. A gunsmith known only as HaveBlue produced a working AR-15 lower receiver and fitted it to a pre-existing barrel. It test fired 200 rounds beautifully. Sure, the metal firing pin and barrel weren’t 3D printed, but it’s only a matter of time before making a gun is easier than buying one.
One of the most interesting uses of 3D printing is in the medical field, with several companies creating products to aid the suffering. One of the most interesting is Bespoke Innovations, who use the technology to design and develop one-of-a-kind prosthetic limbs for amputees. Many prosthetics are designed for function over form, and don’t replicate the shape of the lost limb. Bespoke’s “Fairings” are created from casts of existing limbs and slide over the existing prosthetic to make the lost limb seem more natural. You can also accessorize them with different materials and even tattoos.
3D printing is capable of all sorts of interesting things, but some people are pushing the envelope a little farther than we’re comfortable with. Modern Meadow, a new startup backed by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, is using the basic principles of additive manufacturing to make…meat. Modern Meadow is using tissue engineering to produce protein-exact replicas of animal meat and hide in an in vitro environment. They’re still in the prototyping stage, but expect them to make big strides as soon as the USDA approves of their Frankenstein-esque plan.
The Smithsonian Institution
Well, not the building itself, but at least all of the stuff in the Smithsonian Institution. The largest repository of historical and scientific artifacts in the United States is hard to move around, but the whole point is to share them. With over 137 million different items in the collection, it can be impossible to deal with. That’s why the museum has started using the RedEye On Demand 3D printing technology to enable duplication of their goods for display around the world. Starting with a historic sculpture of Thomas Jefferson that’s on display in Monticello, they’ve announced their intention to scan everything into digital form and recreate it as needed. We’re in the Matrix, folks.
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Your Own Face
Now this one is just creepy. iPhone app Trimensional was launched in 2011 to little fanfare, but once people realized what it could be used for, things got crazy. The app uses the front-facing camera on an iPhone 4 or newer to take images at different angles by projecting light from the screen. It then knits those images together to make a 3D model, which can then be exported to a 3D printer to create a lifelike mask of your own visage. Then, you can wear it on top of your real face and rob a bank! It’s the perfect crime!