17/03/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

5 Amazing Innovations In 3D Printing

Just imagine the scenario: Connecting a printer to your computer and then using that printer to create not mere drawings, sketches or printouts but solid, tangible objects, right from a little wrench to a five-storey apartment.

An attendee shakes hands with a 3D-printed robotic prosthetic arm created based on an image scanned with Intel's RealSense 3D camera, at the International CES Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Technology never ceases to amaze us. Star Trek, which had the entire 70s- and 80s-born generation hooked on to TV sets on Sunday mornings for their futuristic gadgets, seems to be only two decades away now!

Something which has fascinated me in the last few months is 3D printing technology. Technically called Additive Manufacturing, it refers to creating solid, three dimensional objects using digital files.

Just imagine the scenario: Connecting a printer to your computer and then using that printer to create not mere drawings, sketches or printouts but solid, tangible objects!

The additive process entails laying down successive layers of material onto a powder bed with inkjet printer heads using computerised instructions. The solid products thus produced can be in almost any predefined shape.

Here are some of its most remarkable applications.

1. A Prosthetic Helping Hand

Five-year-old Keith Harris from Texas was born with an extremely rare condition called Symbrachydactyly -his hand did not fully form in the uterus. The boy was bothered by the stares he got because of his condition but he was unlikely to get a regular prosthetic device. For one, it cost a prohibitive $40,000, and, two, he would outgrow it. To the rescue came the E-Nable Organization which runs the "3D Mechanical Hand: Maker Movement". The group, founded by a prop maker and a carpenter who worked together to make a prosthetic for a child in South Africa, aims to provide other children like Harris with devices that can help them perform routine tasks that would be otherwise very difficult for them.

The company helped create a prosthetic hand for the young lad using 3D printing technology. They gave the device to the parents for free but it cost them only $40-50.

His mother said, "This is something that's been really positive that's come out of having an upper-limb difference," she said. "His personality has really come alive. He's had confidence that's he's never had before."

2. A Wrench Emailed Into Space

NASA recently emailed a wrench into space! Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) would earlier have to wait for several weeks (at times, even months) if they needed some replacements. But when Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore asked for a ratcheting socket wrench this time, a 3D printer aboard the ISS made it available to him within a few hours.

The people hovering several hundred kilometres above the earth's surface were emailed a set of detailed instructions by NASA scientists following which they put to use their 3D printer made by Made in Space and created a wrench themselves.

"We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by "Butch") mention over the radio that he needed one, so we designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have," said Mike Chen, founder of the company behind the printer. "The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly... It also marks the end of our first experiment--a sequence of 21 prints that together make up the first tools and objects ever manufactured off the surface of the Earth."

3. A Five-Storey Apartment Out Of Recycled Material

A highly innovative Shanghai-based construction firm, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, used a 150m-long printer to create a five-storey building entirely out of recycled construction waste. The building, which has a terracotta brick-like exterior was later put for display at Suzhou Industrial Park where the makers proudly declared it to be "the world's tallest 3D-printed building."

The giant sized apartment was made out of patented ink created from a mixture of recycled construction waste. The makers of this building had earlier used the technology to create 10 single-story liveable houses in 24 hours last year.

"We need to revise and improve such a standard for the future," said Ma Rongquan, the chief engineer behind the project.

The Egyptian government has already ordered 20,000 affordable houses, as has a Taiwanese real estate group.

The company's engineers are now working to create a printer which can create desert sands into building material.

4. 3D Printed Solar Racing Car

Students at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have created the prototype of an urban solar electric car putting to use the same technology.

And mind you, the car which is being called NTU Venture (NV) 8, is not just another car -- it is a racing vehicle! The team behind this project used a 3D printed cabin made out of lightweight plastic to maximise internal space and comfort while keeping weight to a minimum.

"Despite being an urban concept car, it is no slouch and can reach a top speed of 60km per hour, while maintaining low-energy consumption," said Ilmi Bin Abdul Wahab, the fourth-year computer engineering student who is the mastermind behind the NV8.

5. An Affordable 3D Printer By An Indian Company

While I had marvelled at these technological feats made possible by 3D printing technology in the last few months, the proud Indian in me swelled with pride on reading about an Indian company, 3ding, which has created an amazing 3D printer costing as little as Rs 19,999.

The product which has been made available in the market by the name of FabX is being marketed by the manufacturers as "the most affordable professionally built desktop 3D printer made in India."

"The 3D printer was released on Jan 31st at our 2nd Anniversary event and we have now started taking pre-orders. The FabX 3D printer is manufactured by us and it is for sale in both India as well as abroad," says Krishna Kumar from the company.

Kumar attributes the affordability of his product to his extremely dedicated research and development team. The manufacturers wanted to make a low cost product for hobbyists, students and small prototyping, but have bigger plans for the future and hope to be able to come up with machines which will "be suitable for architectural purposes, and industrial prototyping with industry grade services."

The product can be purchased from the company's website.

Though the potential for utilizing 3D printing technology in the fields of electronics, automobiles, aerospace, educational, industrial, medical and architectural is huge, a lack of awareness and the cost involved have been huge limiting factors.

Earlier, Bangalore-based Nikhil Velpanur and Arvind Nadig had together come up with a 3D printer costing about Rs1 lakh. Their printer called Brahma 3 is capable of printing objects as large as a football. Another startup, df3d, is teaming up with doctors based in Pune, Bangalore and Nagpur to do some pioneering work in the healthcare sector.