10 Examples of Direct-Digital Manufacturing and Personalization

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

Additive manufacturing is not a futuristic technology; it’s already in place and in use across many industries from medical implants to aerospace technologies. As material options expand and complexity of 3D-printed objects increases to include integrated electronics and enhanced structural designs, a broader spectrum of products can be manufactured directly from electronic files and raw source materials.

Production of 3D-printed food

Cornell University and other research sites are exploring 3D-printed foods such as vegetable wafers and meat pastes. Under a NASA grant, a small company in Austin, Texas is currently working on a 3D printer using materials from long-storage powders, suspended oils, and water to create 3D-printed pizzas that will cook to completion on a food printer. Cornell’s students already print out custom cakes and finger-foods.

Tissues and organs

Beyond the simple biological materials needed to 3D-print muscle tissues and foodstuffs, additive manufacturing bioprinters are being developed with the capacity to create complex multi-cellular matrices that can grow into functional organs and replacement tissues for human recipients. One benefit of these designs is that they can make use of a recipient’s own cells, producing implantable replacements that don’t require a lifetime regimen of immunosuppressive medications to prevent transplant rejection.

Biological replicas

Until such time as bioprinters can create replacement living tissues, 3D printing still has a promising medical role: It allows the fabrication of prosthetics and implants perfectly matched to the original body part (or mirrored from functional body parts) to provide individualized replacements. The prosthetic can be transformed through 3D printing into not only a functional replacement, but also a work of art, one that accurately reflects the wearer’s personality.

Clothing and footwear

Looking beyond the bounds of our bodies, 3D printing allows the creation of textiles and other body adornment. One such product would be custom-fit athletic wear capable of giving the athlete better traction and reduced weight; another would be stylish full-body coverings uniquely tailored to each wearer’s body measurements.

The potential for custom-manufactured garments has cropped up in fictional works, but today it is en route to becoming a reality. Branding can go well beyond stitched alligators on the lapel of a shirt to include trademarks (or marketing messages) in every aspect of the design.

[Credit: Image courtesy of the Francis Bitonti Studio (Designer: Michael Schmidt, Architect: Franci

Credit: Image courtesy of the Francis Bitonti Studio (Designer: Michael Schmidt, Architect: Francis Bitonti)

Artwork customization

One of the earliest uses of small 3D-printed items was in the creation of customized plastic earrings and pendants. Today this has grown to include magnificent creations that capture the beauty of math in solid form, using precious metals that can be worn to suit the preferences of a wearer or the requirements of the designer.

Even plastic components are being used to fashion dioramas of entire rooms in full scale, and to build massive works of art representing the participation and preferences of individual artists in crowd-crafted consolidated fabrication.

Make Hollywood spectacular

Model makers have long created sets and props for movie productions, but the potential of 3D printing has made it possible to personally fit a costume to an individual actor. An example is Tony Stark’s magnificent Iron Man costume, created to fit actor Robert Downey, Jr.’s exact dimensions— through the magic of 3D printing.

Similarly, when Hollywood wanted to blow up James Bond’s classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5 from Sean Connery’s time in the role, the original car ($4.6 million USD) was spared; a 3D-printed replica stood in as the “stunt double.”

Structure creation

3D-printed artwork can produce entire structures big enough to live in. Using natural raw materials such as sand and lunar regolith, this capability will enhance the ability to explore new worlds or to fashion satellites in space — using materials derived from asteroids and other sources found abundantly in the solar system, rather than carrying materials from Earth at great cost. Eventually entire houses may be crafted in place.

Reach beyond the sky

Aerospace designs for high-performance turbines and jet-engine compressors can be crafted as single-print objects rather than traditional assemblies of smaller components. One advantage is that having to join components can create weaknesses and require finishing during assembly into their final form — but a 3D-printed object is already one piece. Eventually, they will take along with them the capability to create needed items from materials they discover during their travels.

Robot construction

Automation and robotics are transforming the world into a highly interactive and self-controlling environment. The tools they use for these purposes are often custom-built designs, but 3D printers are making the same potential available to individual makers and designers who are learning about robotics or who are developing small-production runs of custom robotics suited to a particular purpose too narrow to draw commercial production of custom designs by large industries.

Complex linkages and connections between components can be easily created using 3D printers to form one-off brackets and other elements fit to exactly the need of the moment.

Printing 3D printers

Beyond basic robotics, 3D printers are now making it possible to fashion more 3D printers using basic robotic controls and linkages together with custom brackets and common off-the-shelf hardware.

When fundamental patents on FDM/FFF thermoplastic extrusion expired in 2006, Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s self-REPlicating RAPid prototyping (RepRap) system was released to the world as an open-source design — and a capability once only available in labs and high-end manufacturing facilities became a household appliance costing less than the first LaserJet printers.

Today, RepRaps of dozens of different designs and their offspring are available in makerspaces, schools, and even office supply stores. Each of these can be used to print many of the components for another printer in turn, using open-source designs freely available online.