Finally, a decent use for 3 D printing

I’ve long been very puzzled by this enthusiasm for 3 D printing. Partly because I simply do not share the usual male joy at tinkering. I don’t program for exactly the same reason. Nor play with engines etc. Just isn’t me at all.

But I’ve also found it terribly difficult to think of things which people would both want and which would not be better/cheaper through he normal mass manufacturing routes. And now someone has worked that out:

However, having learned how far lighter limbs could be created on a 3D printer, he began to experiment in his garden shed.
He has now set up Team UnLimbited, which creates customised ‘cool’ limbs for children, featuring their choice of colour and pattern.
The father of three said: ‘We’ve done Iron Man designs, Harry Potter, Lego and Spider-Man. The key is making something the child actually wants to wear and feels is cool enough to show their friends.

Customised prosthetics. Full marks there, full marks, for the man and his shed.

25 thoughts on “Finally, a decent use for 3 D printing”

  1. And now he gets dunned for unlicensed use of various properties, no?

    That aside, more industrial 3D printing (with more robust materials than the plastic that the hobbyist printers use) would work for things like hip replacements that exactly replicate the original bones’ shape.

  2. 3D printing works for short production runs where mass production via dies and stamping make less sense. The US military uses it for making parts in out of the way places.

    I suppose the barrier to widespread adoption is QC and design. Eventually 3D printing should lead to dramatically better distributed small lot production.

  3. Bloke in Wiltshire

    As Ken said – short production runs, but also prototyping. I know that places like Dyson have them. You’re developing a new vacuum cleaner, need a bit of plastic that’s a certain shape, you can get one made in a couple of hours rather than waiting for days to get something back.

    There’s a guy in America who does something similar:

  4. I’ve been watching with interest the developments in 3d scanning and printing of parts for really old cars, among other things:

    That said, I’m not sure the ‘fascination’ Tim refers to is with the output. More that this is just an incredibly futuristic-feeling process. 3-d printing still feels like something out of sci-fi, and seeing it out working in the real world is amazing.

    In general we’re quite blase about technological advances and don’t really recognise how big they’ve been when they’ve crept up bit by bit. There’s a general feeling that George Jetson wouldn’t be too impressed with our society, that we haven’t got the flying cars and so-on of his world – but there’s the odd thing like 3d printing that seems like it would blow his socks off.

  5. I don’t understand this enthusiasm for working in a shed. Cold, damp, prone to thefts, no toilet. If you really want to destroy your books and computer equipment, why not just chuck them in a skip?

  6. Bloke in Wiltshire


    “There’s a general feeling that George Jetson wouldn’t be too impressed with our society, that we haven’t got the flying cars and so-on of his world – but there’s the odd thing like 3d printing that seems like it would blow his socks off.”

    Someone once observed that for all that stuff, the Jetsons still assumed that you’d have full-time housewives.

    It’s information and communication technology that made the massive leaps. You watch Blade Runner and they saw a future of artificial humans, flying cars and offworld colonies, but they still thought we’d be using payphones and print photographs. Or Hitchhikers – we have the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy in the shape of Wikipedia, and you can download the text of it to a smartphone.

  7. There’s a TV programme here about a veterinary professor who fixes up animals, mainly dogs, with various problems. A lot of the stuff he uses for replacement limb parts is custom-made by a 3D printing process in metal. I think this is also being used in medicine for people now.

  8. Doing clickbait now are we Timmy?

    You’ve heard of 2D printers I suppose. Good as prototyping a pdf or somesuch to see if it’s the right shape.
    Print on demand also.

    3D is just an extension. Not that new fangled either, since I met a chap 20 years ago who was developing it. Dupont originally came up with the gunk I believe.

    You also must have done some economic history at that 2nd rate place you went to. (LSE) Industrial revolution driven by standardisation (Whitworth thread, etc) and exchangeable parts.

    We’re now in version 3.0 of the industrial revolution. Unique parts, no need for standard kit nor a warehouse, make on demand.

  9. Yes, I get all of that. But I’m going on to the next economic question. For what things is this better than standard mass production techniques? And I wasn’t getting very far in thinking up things. Prototyping maybe? Fixing parts in Antarctica? OK, but fringe uses. And then this makes me think, aha! now that is a good/useful use.

    I can even go further. Team up with some good prostheses designers (foot, ankle, leg, arm, partial arm etc, different designs for different levels of limb loss. Ankles especially are difficult I hear) to create basic model designs. distribute those, obviously CAD files on a server somewhere, then blokes like this do the customisation for the child,/person requiring or desiring.

    Actually, this is something that I would argue would make a very good and wholly fascinating project for someone. I’d come and do it if someone funded. For, say, a couple of million (which is I bet vastly, vastly less than the NHS currently spends on prostheses) you could get a system up and running for the country I bet. Lot of volunteer work in there no doubt, but need some professional work and engineering at the centre. The crunch work of the basic design done once and distributed, training classes to local engineers and geeks…..advice on which printing system etc.

    But every hospital has a “Friends of the hospital” and why shouldn’t such have a couple of the local geeks occasionally turning out a spare limb or two?

  10. I agree Tim. In general, maybe not specific.
    Back in the day, photo digital, CAD, rendering, etc was ludicrously hungry for ram.

    The big market turned out to be not our niche stuff but porn and video games. So the likes of Intel foud their big market, by accident.

    Ask Rocco or BIS. I can also see another dimension. Novels where you can follow a thread. Choose what happens next and you get the sad or happy ending. In fact, Jane Austen probably pioneered this: rememeber the business about the entail in Pride and Prejudice.

  11. Also Tim
    Of course protheses.
    But 3D printing not there yet. Maybe in 1/2 a century we’ll have a system where you can shine a torch at a prothesisi and make it grow along with a child.

  12. Cory doctorow wrote Makers based on the idea of moving to small 3D printing business models, interesting read

  13. For what things is this better than standard mass production techniques?

    Firstly, at the industrial level, it can produce parts that are stronger and lighter than conventional methods. I read a while back about an airline manufacturer (Airbus?) who was able to cut 25% off the weight of some parts in their airliners by replacing them with 3D printed versions with more complex shapes that couldn’t be produced by conventional methods.

    Secondly, it can produce some parts much faster than conventional manufacturing. That’s why SpaceX now use some 3D-printed parts in their rocket engines. Their new engine for landing their new capsules is mostly 3D-printed.

    Thirdly, you can produce custom parts. Mass production is great if you want to produce a lot of the same thing. It’s not much help if you want to produce something customized for your own use. Or, indeed, if you need to replace a part that hasn’t been made in years.

    Lastly, you can produce what you need locally, and the number of things you can produce locally is increasing as the printers become more capable. As we move out into space, that’s going to be essential, since no-one’s going to want to be shipping spare parts across the solar system.

  14. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Another advantage is it’s digital. So once someone does the work of building the model, it’s infinitely reproducible. Github has support for STL, including diffs so you can see how two versions of a model compare.

  15. As Ed Grant says, it’s already being used in aerospace to produce very light structures. It’s a different thing really to the plasticky rapid prototyping that has gained popularity recently, but not totally. Powdered alloy beds and lasers to liquify and fuse it onto the structure. Very T-1000 to see a shape rise from the powder.

    It’s important because it’s an additive process, different to the normal take-a-block-and-forge/machine/weld-it-into-shape subtractive process. So no superfluous material – they often look quite cool, like 3D webs, as they follow the expected lines of stress in a component.

    It’s not so much that we can’t make these shapes with historic techniques – conceptually at least – more that we couldn’t do it economically or with good integrity.

  16. +1 on helping out with parts for old cars.

    “Hub caps” for older versions of my car are made of plastic and, after 20 years, are breaking. They are still available as New Old Stock from Peugeot for a fee but when they run out owners will be stuffed.

    A member of the owner’s club has made a new part using 3D printing. He’s now on the fourth iteration to perfect it. First design didn’t work very well. Second version was 59mm diameter and too loose, next version was 60mm dia and too tight so he’s trying 59.5.

    Having a mould made would be prohibitively expensive but spitting out a 3D printed part is easy.

  17. Quite so.
    1st gen 3D print was basically a fancy lathe.
    2nd gen a mould.
    3rd gen a piece of art.

  18. Niche railway models are really benefiting. 009 narrow gauge railway modellers are only a few thousand in the country. Ready to run models were few and far between but 3d printing allows making smaller manufactures like 4Dee models to produce limited runs at affordable costs.

    Not as life changing as custom prosthetics but fun.

  19. @ken, May 21, 2017 at 7:58 am

    iirc RAF also use 3D printing for metal Tornado parts in eg Cyprus

    @Bloke in Wiltshire, May 21, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Yep, prototyping is one large use. Not only plastic, metal too.

    @Tim W
    It’s used a lot in Aerospace, Medical and Motorsport.

    iirc average production cross-over from 3D to mould is ~1,000 units.

    Many commercial uses covered here

    See also

  20. Replacement teeth will soon be scanned and 3D printed in minutes out of anti-bacterial material in a dentist’s office.

    In the film business technicians are already custom printing their own fittings for camera rigs etc and I’m sure that this sort of adaptation is going to be common across a lot of industries where components from different manufacturers often need to be conjoined in the most effective way for the particular use or user.

    Film props are also being 3D printed, both for more quickly creating something original but also for duplicating existing objects which need to be disposable, more numerous, lighter, stronger etc, for the purposes of a particular film.

  21. Talking of teeth, I forgot the medical applications. It seems that a lot of tissues can now be 3D printed, though few have been tested in humans. Or they can be replaced with compatible artificial materials: the other day, I read about a 3D printed ovary successfully tested in mice with follicles from mice implanted in an artificial, 3D-printed framework.

    And medicine is an area where you’re really likely to benefit from being able to customize every design to the patient.

  22. Anything where any degree of customisation adds more value than the price reduction available from using traditional mass-manufacturing. Medical applications obviously pass this test, as they’re unique to every individual – no more uncomfortable fittings. But just have a look next time you go out at how many places are dedicated to fingernails and toenails. Generally, this involves either painting on some custom design (expensive) on some false nails, or sticking on some standard-pattern false nails (cheap). If you 3D-print these, not only can you eliminate overstocking (because of all the weird and wonderful shapes people’s nails are) but custom designs could be nearly as cheap as the standard ones, and infinitely more desirable and hence more valuable.

    Generally, as mass-market consumers, we don’t actually know what we want to customise until someone offers to do it inexpensively. At the moment, most things are standardised because it’s the only cheap way to do it, but a small premium for something built exclusively for you, to your exact specifications, is something most people are willing to pay on a consistent basis.

  23. “Replacement teeth will soon be scanned and 3D printed in minutes out of anti-bacterial material in a dentist’s office.”

    My brother in law (in Korea though) is a dental technician and he has a machine for doing this already; I’ve seen it. However, for some reason I think most of the replacement teeth are done using the traditional method.

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