This article discusses how three-dimensional (3-D) printing technology has advanced in the past few years. The 3-D printing technology has been around for more than three decades, but it has come a long way in the past few years. It has established niches in everything from jet engines to oil and gas drilling. It is used to customize such personalized products as orthodontics, hearing aids, and arch and sole supports. Laboratories have printed small robots that come out of the printer with their batteries in place. Printers have created complete automobiles and turbine engines, and even artificial bones and organs. Politicians in the United States now propose 3-D printing as the solution to America’s manufacturing problems. Corporations imagine that this technology could slash time in product cycles and improve performance with new designs. Some people also envision a future where people would be manufacturing products (and replacement parts) at their homes using 3-D printing technology.

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Three-D printing is at that stage of interest where it has begun to take on a life—loaded with expectations—of its own.

Politicians have proposed 3-D printing as the solution to America's manufacturing problems. Corporations imagine it could slash time in product cycles and improve performance with new designs. Makers envision a future where we will download files and manufacture products (and replacement parts) in our homes.

The technology has been around for more than three decades, but it has come a long way in the past few years. It has established niches in everything from jet engines to oil and gas drilling. It is used to customize such personalized products as orthodontics, hearing aids, and arch and sole supports.

Laboratories have printed small robots that come out of the printer with their batteries in place. Printers have created complete automobiles and turbine engines, and even artificial bones and organs.

Hobbyists, meanwhile, have developed innovative new ways to use the technology.

This confluence of corporate interest, academic research, and amateur enthusiasm has happened before: It popularized the personal computer.

Could 3-D printers have the same trajectory? It is hard to imagine they will, but something is happening here. To see where it might lead, Mechanical Engineering went to a 3-D printing conference at Javits Center in New York City.

The event included academics, entrepreneurs, industrialists, artists, and makers. We interviewed a few of them. What follows captures some of the breadth—and excitement—in the field today.

Geoffrey Doyle President, FIT West

Santa Clara, Calif.

FIT West is a subsidiary of FIT AG of Germany, which provides engineering, prototyping, and production services, and also develops netFabb 3-D printing software.

With 3-D printing, Geoffrey Doyle reduced the weight of an aluminum cylinder head (above) by as much as 66 percent.

With 3-D printing, Geoffrey Doyle reduced the weight of an aluminum cylinder head (above) by as much as 66 percent.

There was really no single thing that got me interested in 3-D printing. There were lots of applications that caught my eye, from rapid prototyping to saving weight on products.

It was also a technology that interested me strategically. I am a mechanical engineer and financier, and it was growing 30 percent per year. I wanted to participate in that.

In five years, I think we will be doing higher volume metal parts in additive manufacturing. Right now, metal is not used much outside of defense, aerospace, medical devices, and energy. We are going to be in many more markets in the future.

In the medical field, many problems are personal and require individualized solutions. That's what I would like to see, more personalized products, whether they are implants or accessories, customized for the people who will use them.

I think people get a little too hung up about the hysteria around 3-D printing. We want to do production.

Ashley Velinskie Conceptual Artist and Sculptor

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ashley Velinskie uses 3-D printing to play with ideas. Her sculptures are covered with the hexadecimal code used to generate the artwork.

Ashley Velinskie's remake of Andy Warhol's Brillo Box displays the code used to print the box.

Ashley Velinskie's remake of Andy Warhol's Brillo Box displays the code used to print the box.

I studied glass blowing, and I got really bored with it. It hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. What could I start to do that I could never get bored with?

So I got a job at MakerBot, back in the Cupcake and Thing-O-Matic 3-D printer days. They were just starting to take the baby steps of 3-D printing, and I built my own 3-D printer. When I turned it on for the first time and it started moving around and printing something, I realized this was the wave of the future. This was how objects were going to be made. It was my new medium.

Right now, it's hard to scale up sculptures. I did a sculpture garden piece for a U.S. embassy that was five feet long, and had to switch to laser cutout technology because the technology does not exist to make that piece in 3-D printing. I’m hoping that in five years, 3-D printers can make bigger and bigger and bigger and better and better and better parts, so I can make larger and more intricate objects.

I think I already printed my dream object, a life-size chair. In the 1960s, the artist Joseph Kosuth did a piece called, One in Three Chairs. It was a chair, a picture of a chair, and a dictionary definition of a chair in a gallery space. It questioned the nature of what's the true chair, the image, the idea, or the object.

I did the same thing, but my one chair is made out of code. So what's the real object, is it the chair or the code that's on the chair? Is it the way a computer sees it or the way a human sees it?

That took me two years on a MakerBot. Then new and better technology came out and I 3-D printed it in larger pieces in just two weeks. I’m just waiting for a technology to catch up with my ideas.

Amir Mansouri Co-Founder and Lead Engineer

Sprintray, Redondo Beach, Calif.

Funded in part through Kickstarter, SprintRay's new MoonRay printer promises 100-micrometer precision at a price under $2,000. I really got it after I built my first 3-D printer and got my first parts out of it. It's amazing. As engineers, we’re always taught that when we design something, it has to be designed in a certain way so that we can manufacture it. When I saw 3-D printing, I realized that this will change that way of designing things. Right now, I can design anything in my SolidWorks and print it an hour afterwards. I believe 3-D printing is the future. I want every engineer to have a 3-D printer sitting next to their computer, so they can create their imagination as a source of innovation. If I could print anything? A flying car. I love cars, I want to be able to 3-D print my own car. Our designer is actually always sketching cars, so I tell him, “You make the body and I’ll design the mechanisms to make it work.” They would be electric cars, of course. Amir Mansouri, co-founder of SprintRay. Amir Mansouri, co-founder of SprintRay. Severine Zygmont President, Biomedical Division Oxford Performance Materials, South Windsor, Conn. Oxford's biomedical division prints implants, which are mechanically similar to natural bone and support bone cell growth, and are customized for individual patients. It developed one of the first FDA-approved polymeric 3-D printed implants. I remember seeing a 3-D printer at one of my first trade shows, about 18 years ago, but I thought of it as a gizmo, a little nothing. I never thought I would be using it to make implants. What changed my thinking was an article I read years ago, by a surgeon talking about a fantastic synthetic bone material. The surgeon said that the only way to make it was with 3-D printing. Severine Zygmont spent years developing customizable 3-D printed implants for surgeons. Severine Zygmont spent years developing customizable 3-D printed implants for surgeons. That's when we went to our technical director and asked him if he thought he could do something like that. We started developing our own polymer 16 years ago. In five years, we’re going to be able to change the way surgeons approach medical devices. Right now, they start by thinking about what is available, and then they try to make it fit the patient. They have to work around existing designs. What is going to happen, I think, is that we are going to be more and more in tune with those surgeons, and better able to give them exactly what the patient needs. My dream project would be for us to create long 3-D bones that are so good, we no longer have to amputate someone's leg, but can replace the entire bone within it. Cole Nielsen Co-Founder Orbital Composites, San Jose, Calif. Cole Nielsen is printing carbon-reinforced composites and hopes to tackle rocket engines. Cole Nielsen is printing carbon-reinforced composites and hopes to tackle rocket engines. Orbital Composites is a startup that has patented several print heads that it says will make 3-D printing up to 100 times faster, and that can be used in conjunction with CNC and other conventional production machines. Initially, I had another startup. We were going after injection molded products, and we were doing all our prototyping with 3-D printing. We were spending$300 to \$800 per prototype. So I bought our own 3-D printers. I wound up logging 10,000 print hours in one year. After 2,000 hours of razor blade work cutting out support material, I almost lost my mind.

In addition, the parts were weak. I thought, if I could use carbon fiber, it would strengthen things up. So after I left my previous startup, I started focusing on the best way to solve my problems with 3-D printing.

One of the things you could do with our technology is create continuous filament, liquid cooled silicon carbide rocket nozzles. These would be many times lighter than you can make now with titanium, and they actually have better thermal and mechanical properties. And the thing is, with 3-D printing you can add in all the little radiator cooling channels that you can’t do with any other method. So it's actually like a radiator wrapped around a rocket nozzle, but we’re building it out of one piece of ceramic. I think we could start to do that in five years.

Skip Meetze

Meetze retired from Xerox and started his own firm, Tango Products Design. Today, he spends most of his time at e-NABLE, a volunteer organization that uses 3-D printing to create inexpensive prosthetic arms.

By using simple 3-D designs posted online, volunteers can print custom prosthetics for nearby children.

By using simple 3-D designs posted online, volunteers can print custom prosthetics for nearby children.

After I retired, I used 3-D printing to prototype a good stand for iPads. I didn’t realize what a competitive market that was going to be, so I put the code on the Thingiverse website for anyone who wanted to print it.

Veronica Zalcberg Principal designer

Monad Studio adapts new technologies to create organic forms from cityscapes and buildings to installations and product design.

Three-D printing enables us to realize our organic designs. We worked with musician Scott Hall to design a custom two-string piezoelectric violin with a very organic construction. Afterwards, we began receiving a lot of calls from different musicians that want us to design crazy, crazy instruments. Some of them are very interesting.

The cost is high because the production is still so complex. Hopefully, costs will decline and these types of designs will be available to more people.

We also work in the construction industry, and create prototypes using different materials and see how we can apply them to architecture. These projects range from inside walls or ceilings to custom-made blocks that can be transformed rapidly to create different shapes and designs. For example, we recently did a sonic art installation, where musicians came with small devices and an electric guitar we designed that let them control the wall to produce music. The wall became the instrument. We want to do more of that in five years.

Inspired by Florida's strangler vine, Veronica Zalcberg created an organic shape for this electric violin.

Inspired by Florida's strangler vine, Veronica Zalcberg created an organic shape for this electric violin.

Retired engineer Skip Meetze volunteers to design 3-D printable prosthetics for kids.

Retired engineer Skip Meetze volunteers to design 3-D printable prosthetics for kids.

I built my own 3-D printer from a kit about three years ago, and I’ve been having fun with that in the meantime.

Last summer, somebody invited me to Rochester Institute of Technology to see Jon Schull putting a prosthetic arm on a young man, and I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe you could really do that with a 3-D printer. Since then, I’ve been making hand designs with a 3-D printer as a volunteer at RIT. [An interview with Jon Schull appears on page 18.]

I’ve satisfied all my basic needs, like food and shelter, I want to do something that makes you feel good. I don’t need to do it, but I want to give back.