What to print in 3D

Over the last few years we have watched a whole load of new technologies go from expensive items for the professional to cheap gadgets for the home. Laptops, Mobile phones, plasma TVs, digital cameras, HD camcorders, GPS, photo printers, scanners, the list goes on. This year everything is going 3D. TVs and laptops with 3D screens are already available at reasonable prices and within a few of years most gadgets that can be made to work in 3D will be sold mostly in 3D versions. If you are an early adopter you may already have your 3D phone with 3D screen and camera, but what about 3D printers?

3D printers don’t print 3D pictures that you view with 3D glasses like 3D TVs, they print real 3D objects made out of plastic. Already they are being used by manufacturing and design companies for rapid prototyping and in medicine they are being used to print bone replacements for knees, hips and jaws. Each part is a one-off with exactly the right shape produced directly from a computer model. The cost of a 3D printer such as this HP Designjet is about €13,000 so a few rich gadget freaks may already have them in their home. For most of us the cost will need to come down by one or two orders of magnitude before it gets onto the Xmas wishlist. Will that happen and if so how fast? Assuming there is no technical obstacle the answer depends on the demand. What would we use it for?

If you think the only thing a 3d printer could be used for in the home is printing spare buttons for your shirt then you are sadly lacking in imagination. Somebody with a bit more vision would see things differently and he or she may be the next entrepreneur to reach the top ten on the worlds rich list. I regret that it isn’t going to be me but it might be someone like Oskar van Deventer who has been using Shapeways 3D printing services to make ingenious (and often amusing) puzzles based on Rubik’s Cube. When you need some inspiration you could do worse than browse some of the many videos on his Youtube channel. Here are some favourites.


Hollow Cube


Mixup Cube

Anisotropic cube

Unlucky Twist


17x17x17 Rubik’s Cube

Twisty Tree

Gear Snake

Thank you for watching.

Bonus – How to solve Rubik’s cube in 5.66 seconds

When you are 3 years old it may take you a little longer

17 Responses to What to print in 3D

  1. Joerg says:

    Cory Doctorow suggested that the next culture war will be about people printing adult toys at home.

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    It’s pretty amazing. Do they print the cube as 1 object or do they print parts separately?

    I wanted to ask about printing women, too.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      They print them as parts which he screws together. It would still require a lot of skill. We will have to wait a bit longer for 3D Printers that can assemble the mechanisms. As for women, I know I said we need some imagination but I think you are getting a bit carried away there 🙂

    • Lubos Motl says:

      If they can print Rubik cubes, why they couldn’t print women? Or are you like Hawking for whom women are more mysterious than the Universe? 😉

  3. Dilaton says:

    I want scan myself at home and print at my holiday destination

  4. I can think of so many things I could use this for that would have saved me so much hand work and been more accurate as prototype parts for my candle molds and processes. I wish there were other materials to use as the product, I mean one can print edible food I understands (hmmm maybe we can print penny Lubos) in any case such crude machines are able of being industrial workhouses of endless copy manufacturing.

    One does not need to assemble parts as now the holes in some things do not have to be drilled, and that a problem in small metals to the finest say dental tools. But I do imagine something as simple as printing Rubiks cubes in one piece can be done when we get to the more general idea of space to make a 4D printing program possible not just the assembling.

    The PeSla (who found a crude one for the candle purposes on line for a thousand dollars or so.)

  5. carla says:

    IQ test: What is the simplest 3d assembled object that can’t be printed layer by layer?

  6. carla, to quote Hawking, Woman!

    but this is great question…it would involve ordinary distance components whose tetrahedral volume have edges that do not exceed a length of three times the golden ratio if such shapes can be assembled. But more is involved as some higher space structures just do not fill space as we so expect for such convex figures. Given enough detail our machines may get confused as to just where to print a fuzzy picture.

    but I do not know what they teach in the universities, so if you have an answer already my low IQ mind (it does not help feeling smarter than many people they are so dumb- and IQ is a myth I think any) but I wonder how accurately we can map the brain maybe in see through plastic layers? Surely, there is great potential here for medicine.

  7. I mean the cube of phi of course/

  8. Intuitively we tend to regard an atom as what we experience in the familiar world as three dimensions.
    Of course the situation is discrete as is the question. But from the view of the continuous we exclude solutions involving powers of phi that would be a lesser dimension for a solution.
    So the minimum 3D structure that can be assembled but not printed would be “Graphene” if we can do this with carbon.
    So what then is the maximum object that cannot be printed in layers? That would be Tellurium (52), by what I call Kea’s Theorem involving dark or Casmir forces.
    But should we find and control the Higgs in this marvelous new era of the search for it in physics we could I imagine use it to catalyze some higher elements if it did not break down into Xenon.
    But Teflon turns out to be unhealthy for us as it gets sticky with age and heat and we ingest it along with other chemical properties we did not expect in this marvelous age of technology.

  9. Tony H says:

    ah, but can it print a 3D printer?

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Yes NASA have a solar powered one but it only works with moon dust. They have plans to leave one on the moon and see what happens.

      • Tony H says:

        I’ve seen that movie. It (they) will become sentient and start churning out drones that will fly over national borders with impunity and blow the crap out of anyone the president doesnt like – or anyone else that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time

  10. Tony,

    I saw that movie too. 2001 Space Odessy. Jupiter lights up when the monoliths replicate enough beyond a certain threshold, Von Neumann’s thoughts I think… but I was not meaning to just write speculation and science fiction. Given three wishes, wishing for more wishes is forbidden – these are deeper questions for science than we talk about formally.

    carla, I do not know enough about what the machines can do, another great question- can they make something like a spring that contains stress? I was rather thinking along those lines, helices rather than springs- well these are still unanswered things in physics, chirality. Can we make one not so far from normal scales of things that when assembled would make a stress situation or are such stresses in layers and assembled sort of like a puzzle that loosely hangs together (one perhaps we cannot open to take apart what is inside)?

    Can God make a Stradivarius without Stradivari ? Hmmm, I wonder if soon we can.

  11. Dirk Pons says:

    The 3d printers have limited capabilities but are getting better. Feature resolution is somehow always less than the sales splurb suggests. 100 microns is a common claim,but hold it in your hand and the feeling is disappointing, at least with the low end models. Good engineering precision is available at the top end. More sophisticated models accommodate multiple materials, but common models are mono-material.At the low end it’s plastic.And usually more brittle than the native material, due to the fusion process. So these are not generally structural parts. 3d printing is great in engineering, where it is used for throw-away concept design, and to make molds for other more durable production processes. Maybe we will see that type of usage spread to homes. But realistically the machines currently on offer can only make small trinkets, and how many of those do you really want? There are some machines that will use white sugar as the feedstock. Hmmm… tasty!

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