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All the Things We're 3D Printing

Food, fashion, surgical models, drones—the sheer variety of 3D printers out there makes for a fantastically diverse range of products.
September 5, 2014, 12:45pm

One of the most compelling things about the 3D printing market right now is quite simply the variety of printers and other related design tech, out there. In turn, that leads to an incredibly diverse range of products now being scanned, modelled, and printed.

There are of course some obvious forerunners in the industry; Forbes reported on a study out this week by Appinions that placed software company Autodesk at the top of the "most influential companies on 3D printing," followed by Amazon (which recently launched a store specialising in weird 3D-printed items), and then two of the biggest providers of actual 3D printers: Stratasys ad 3D Systems.

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But as we saw at CES earlier this year, the industry leaders are complemented by a smorgasbord of other companies offering printers and printing services to suit a whole range of needs. The same was true at London's 3D Printshow this week, where wannabe makers would find themselves spoiled for choice by the sheer number of different machines trundling away at the stalls.

Of course, the best way to showcase the variety of printers and printing services out there is through the wide range of things they're printing, so here's a selection of some of the chillest, strangest, and generally most eye-catching things I saw produced through additive manufacturing.

The Print Green project from the University of Maribor in Slovenia prints a mixture of soil, water, and grass seeds. Water it for a few days, and the grass grows in the shape of your design—that above is the outline of Big Ben and the word "London," in case you couldn't tell.

The students behind the project built their own CNC printer with the expressed aim of uniting technology, art, and nature. Their creations were the only ones I saw at the show that were literally alive.

This little dude is one of Robosavvy's creations. The London-based company brought along several robots they'd made using 3D printing; the above consists entirely of 3D-printed parts except for the motors and wires. A representative explained 3D printing is particularly useful in robotics because even the tiniest amount of weight can send a bot toppling. Being able to quickly tweak and re-print the design is therefore a great advantage. That, and you can give it a realistic face.

Cambridge-based company Dovetailed's "3D fruit printer" prints berry-like shapes made of little globules of flavoured droplets. It essentially uses the posh culinary technique of spherification to allow you to modify or even invent new "fruits," like the strawberry and cream or honeyberry offerings on show here.

3D-printed selfies have been around a while now, with curtained-off 3D scanners now pretty much the standard equivalent to a pop-up photo booth at any makers gathering. They're getting pretty good now, though: These are by My3Dtwin, which uses a 3D scanning set-up comprising 64 DSLR cameras.

Fashion has been pushing the boundaries of what 3D printing is capable of since Iris van Herpen introduced the technology to the catwalk in 2011. The Printshow this year had a section dedicated to fashion and jewellery, including designer Nao Raviv's recent perspective-bending collection. But the dress above was different; it wasn't created by a 3D printer as such, but by the 3Doodler pen, with each decorative floral flourish hand-sketched in PLA plastic.

With an aesthetic somewhere between Lego and seaweed, these shoes capture the impossible intricacy of 3D printed designs. Designed by New York-based Francis Bitonti, famed for the figure-hugging, Swarovski-studded 3D-printed dress modelled by Dita Von Teese, the 'Molecule' capsule collection of shoes was printed by Stratasys.

To a more serious application of 3D printing, and these models were used by doctors to aid in surgery on twins conjoined at the head. Dawood & Tanner, which actually specialises in dentistry, produced the models so surgeons would have a guide as to the anatomy of the skull and, crucially, where the blood vessels were.

It might be pretty easy to spot which banana isn't real, but it's harder to tell that it's 3D-printed; the gradients and texture on the fruit make it look and feel like wood. That's not far off, as this was printed by the MCOR printer, which prints in paper. Every sheet of paper is colour-printed with ink that permeates all the way through, with layer upon layer glued together and cut around until you end up with a solid 3D object. Not a plasticky finish in sight.

This is a pretty badass and drone, and while the 3D-printed version is only a prototype, the finished UAV is intended as more than just a toy. Made by Aerialtronics, a customer of Stratasys, the Altura Zenith model is aimed at industry, to help with tasks in agriculture, search and rescue, and inspection.

Just in case you were worried that 3D printing is getting all too serious, here's a model of Batman on the Bat Signal, designed by digital sculptor Alex Down.

Rest assured there's still a place for hobbyists and their fan art; if anything, as desktop printers and online 3D printing services get cheaper, easier, and more refined, the slew of copycat models shows no sign of slowing. It's just that quality is beginning to slowly catch up with quantity.