Skip to content

5 Disruptive Applications of 3D Printing

From supply chains and medicine to manufacturing and construction, one technology is expected to change everything about how we live: 3D printing.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing may disrupt the global supply chain and eliminate resource waste and bottlenecks. Rather than specialized factories, transportation of cargo, and warehouses to house unused stock, 3D printing enables on-demand manufacturing.

If widely adopted, parts will be transported digitally like files on the cloud, allowing companies to download these files and 3D print them. In this model, companies can produce what they need, when they need it.

Dr. Tim Minshall, a professor of Innovation at the University of Cambridge, says 3D printing is one of the key elements in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And he isn’t wrong. The market is poised for massive growth as illustrated below; in 2019 it was valued at $11.72 billion, and it’s expected reach a $46.19 billion valuation by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 25.68%.

Lately, 3D printed innovations are popping up like wildflowers. In this article we’ll explore 5 disruptive applications of this emerging tech.

1. 3D Printed Living Organs

By using 3D printing techniques to lay structures of collagen (the protein scaffolding that holds cells together) researchers successfully made a hollow shell of an organ. Using this shell and seeding it with stem cells, researchers can transform it into living tissue, making it suitable for transplantation.  By using stem cells cloned from the recipient, most rejection issues are eliminated allowing the organ to be viable for much longer.

At this point in time, kidneys can be 3D printed. Hearts are also under development, although they have yet to be perfected.  In the future, organ shortages may be an issue of the past, with 3D printing creating new avenues for life-extending therapies.

In terms of current focus in this sector, 3D Bioprinting has the largest node size, as illustrated in the chart below. This means it’s one of the leading research topics for academic intuitions studying the tissue engineering space.

2. 3D Printed Space Equipment

Space travel isn’t cheap. A suborbital trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard ranges from $250,000 to $500,000 — and these prices are on the “affordable” side. Orbital flights are more expensive, costing $50 million or more per seat.

Lowering prototyping costs for expensive, space-specific tools and machines will lower overall space travel costs. Therefore, smaller companies will be able to enter and help develop the space innovation market.

Analyzing the main market sectors in 2022, we see 3D printing in aerospace and defense is the second most dominant in 3D printing, valued at nearly $4 billion. Based on these insights, it’s safe to say 3D printing innovations are going to become more common in the space industry.

Speaking of new innovations, California startup Relativity is testing the 3D printing of aluminum rocket engines. They’ve already built the first autonomous rocket factory for launch services for satellites. If successful, their application will sharply reduce the costs and practical difficulties associated with space travel, opening the field to new business and vast potential for growth.

Starting with rockets, Relativity’s Stargate factory vertically integrates robotics, software, and patented 3D printing technologies to digitize manufacturing. The company’s first scheduled launch is set for summer of 2022 and will include the largest 3D printed object in existence to attempt orbital flight.

3D printing  has implications for  space colonization too. In planning missions to Mars, NASA deals with the challenge of setting up homes for those who will be living there. To solve this, they launched the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. This multi-phase challenge was designed to advance the construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond.

3. 3D Printed Artificial Reefs

The world’s coral reefs are disappearing quickly due to global warming, pollution, and accelerated urbanization in coastal communities, placing extreme stress on marine life. This rapid decline increases the need for exploring alternative methods for reef restoration.

To combat this, four of Israel’s leading universities recently published a study highlighting a 3D printing method they developed to preserve coral reefs. The restoration process includes scanning photographs of coral reefs, and then incorporating environmental genetic information into a 3D technology algorithm. From there, they 3D-print a new ceramic reef that is naturally porous underwater. These artificial reefs are expected to attract corals, fish and invertebrates to support the regrowth of natural coral reefs.

In Bath, North Carolina they also made use of 3D-printed coral reefs; 100 concrete cubes of artificial reef were lowered into the water. These cubes were made by 3D-printing and are some of the first of their kind. Until now they had used “materials of opportunity” for artificial reefs, including vessels, train boxcars, or demolition concrete.

4. 3D Printed Fashion

The fashion industry is also leveraging  3D printing. In April 2017, Adidas partnered with startup Carbon, to launch a running shoe with a 3D-printed sole. . With traditional techniques, this midsole would have been impossible to create. Now, Nike and New Balance are also experimenting with 3D printed prototypes.

Dr. Scholl is another footwear brand utilizing 3D printing, however for the mass customization of shoe insoles. In partnership with Wiivv, a 3D printing company, Dr. Scholl uses an app to take scans of customers’ feet. These scans are then used, alongside mapping technology, to create customized insoles, made for the individual.

Beyond footwear 3D printing technologies penetrate garment industry as well — particularly high fashion. It allows designers to expand beyond the traditional boundaries and personalize the sizing and curvature to different body types. This year, new techniques emerged including 3D printing onto textile — representing a breakthrough in the industry because it combined textile materials with digitally created 3D-printed materials.

2021 saw record-breaking VC investments in 3D printing and fashion, raising $1.2 billion across 30 deals. As the chart above illustrates, although 3D printing in fashion isn’t mainstream yet, the trend is growing. Experts predict it will continue to expand in the future.

5. 3D Printed Food

Although 3D printing has touched many industries, food printing devices are still in their infancy. In the past decade, research pushed the boundaries of possibility, allowing the food sector to fabricate 3D foods with complex geometries, customized textures, and tailored nutritional contents.

Worth about $148.22 million as of 2020, the global 3D printed food market size is expected to reach a valuation of $620.66 million by 2026, representing a CAGR of 26.95%.

3D printed food  still has a long way to go before we see widespread adoption. However, the applications thus far are impressive.  From cruelty free, environmentally friendly meat to space food, biometric 3D printed sushi, and foods for people who have difficulty chewing, there’s no question about it: 3D printed food is groundbreaking.

3D Printing: Turning the Impossible into Possible

3D printing is disrupting life as we know it and turning the “impossible” into possible. Although the true potential of this cutting-edge technology is still unknown, one thing is certain — exponential growth is on the horizon.

Author Bio

Kate White

Kate White is the Customer Advocacy Manager at PatSnap. She spends her days learning about and promoting PatSnap customers by highlighting their groundbreaking innovations. Kate holds a Bachelor’s degree in Medical Sciences and Psychology from Western University. In her spare time, she enjoys painting and being outside with her Siberian Husky.