9 Ways 3-D Printing Makes The World Better

At last, the oh-cool at-home manufacturing toy turns into an important tool–offering people (and animals) aid on-demand.

You’ve heard it before: 2011 2012 2013 is the year of 3-D printing. The future is here! The individual will wrench manufacturing power from the global industrial complex! Basement hobbyists, programmers, and nerds unite! Anyone with the machine and the know-how can be their own engineer, designer, maker.


Sounds great, right? Still, a lot of what’s been done with 3-D printing doesn’t exactly fill me with hope about its supposed revolutionary potential. For every 3-D printed action figure and Colbert head the technology has brought into the world, you get another print-ready bong or stupidly complex corset thing. Or worse, a 3-D printed 3-D printer. (See this post for a great takedown of the hype.)

On the other hand, scientists, surgeons, and other professionals and specialists have made significant headway in applying 3-D printing as a truly useful–not just diversionary–technology. Printed organs and houses, for example, offer up immense possibilities in their respective industries. Bespoke biological parts can be materialized patient by patient for groundbreaking applications. Printable houses could signal serious architectural advances, beyond silly, self-indulgent shapes into realizing high-yield, low-cost housing.

So what happens when you mix the consumer-driven approach of the former with the social, humanist imperative of the latter? Ideally, you get something like 3-D printed altruism, the ability to design and make objects that improve the lives of others in a very immediate way.

Prosthetics is the first field where advances like this come to mind, and most of the following nine print-for-good projects explore the subject in new ways. We ran a piece in April that dug into 3-D printing’s “next frontier,” that is, its exciting applications for the disabled. User collaboration results in a prosthetic that’s easy to print/build and made with cheap(er) materials, so it’s more accessible to more people. But it still feels personal.

Take the Robohand, the Luke Skywalker-like appendage designed by a Washington-based mechanical engineer and prop designer in collaboration with a South African woodworker who lost four fingers of his right hand in an accident. The trans-Pacific pair worked together to produce a plastic “robotic” hand using primarily a Makerbot. They then iterated the design for a young boy with amniotic band syndrome, which left one of his hands with nonfunctional digits. The Robohand gave its young user almost full use of his hand, letting him grip a bike handle and throw a tennis ball. Best of all, the designers say it’s only a matter of printing a new shell to accommodate the boy’s growth.

A temporary prosthetic of a kind, the Cortex is a 3-D printed polyamide cast that’s designed to heal fractured bones. Developed by recent graduate Jack Evill, the geometry of the cast is determined by X-rays and scans of the user’s wounded arm. The shell’s voronoi cells are clustered to support the bone where the damage is most severe. The cast’s lightweight structure is porous to encourage ventilation, another serious improvement on old-school encasing: no funky odors.


The medical assists make way for ducklings, too: A lame duck named Buttercup received a 3-D printed prosthetic that potentially saved its life. The young waterfowl was born with a backward left foot, making it quite the struggle to walk and swim. Software engineer Mike Garey of the Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary in Arlington, Tennessee, adopted Buttercup and researched ways to get his new feathered friend waddling for the first time. He contacted Novacopy, a 3-D modeling company, which developed and printed a mold for a functional duck foot. It was set in silicone, and the appendage was a perfect fit.

See more of these 3-D printed prosthetics in the above slide show.

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.