While some might say there’s been a bit too much hype about 3D printing, there are concrete ways in which this technology can play a role in making the world better. Here are seven ways 3D printing could give a boost to some of the causes you care about.
1. Helping the Disabled Communicate More Easily
A tech company called OwnFone, based in London, England, is offering an affordable braille mobile phone on the general market that, because it is the product of 3D printing, will cost as low as £60 or just over $100.
For those who are still learning braille, the company can offer raised up standard letters on the keypad, and allows buyers to customize the phone with pre-installed numbers and more. There have been braille phones in the past of course, and there’s been some criticism that this new phone is ultra basic. That aside, it does serve to show how tech firms now can no longer afford to ignore consumers with disabilities because 3D printing could eventually allow them to have a hand in making their own devices.
2. Creating Low-Cost Sustainable Homes
Imagine building 10 building in 24 hours — and those homes having a smaller environmental impact than normal. That sounds like a dream. Well, actually, it’s already happened.
Suzhou-based construction materials firm Winsun is responsible for this latest feat of engineering. The firm took standard CAD designs for the buildings and printed out their walls by, instead of traditional building materials, using a machine that extrudes a mix of high-grade cement and recycled glass fiber, layering it until the wall is finished. In a similar fashion, the firm also printed the various fittings that would be needed to bring the buildings up to code. All the parts were then moved from the factory to the building site, and the buildings assembled on-site.
While the buildings were both small and basic, it shows how this technology could in the future create affordable, cheap housing while minimizing environmental damage. Check out the video of the production system below:
3. Revolutionizing Disaster Cleanup
Engineers from London’s Imperial College have designed what is essentially an autonomous flying 3D printer, which they believe could help in disasters where they could remove harmful objects so that human surveyors can enter the field.
Researchers fitted the drones with printing technology that creates a sticky foam containing polyurethane. The drones, which look a lot like a large model helicopter, print this foam to cover the potential threat and then, assuming it is below a certain poundage, lift the hazard away. The engineers believe that the drones could be particularly useful in helping to clear toxic spillages that can’t easily be accessed by humans. The technology is still in its infancy, but is part of a raft of exciting ideas surrounding how drone technology can also be used for good despite its military reputation.
4. Getting our Furry Friends Back on their Feet
Among the most rewarding uses of 3D printing that is making a difference to lives right now is the ability to cheaply tailor-make replacement limbs to get critters from ducklings to dogs, hamsters to horses, back on their feet again. Below is a video on how one Nashville printing company used 3D printing to create a new foot for one lucky duck:
5. Helping You Recycle and Create New Things
One start-up company is in the process of helping you turn your old detergent bottles and plastic food containers into filament for a 3D printer, essentially taking your old empty containers and enabling you to make new things with them. The project, called Filabot, would also let consumers recycle so-called bad or unwanted prints, meaning that you could even recycle the things you’ve already printed. This partially sidesteps one of the key concerns with 3D printers: that they will be using plastics that don’t biodegrade. If you can recycle them to make new things, and what’s more, recycle them within your own home, that saves both the environment and your wallet.
While 3D printers are still too pricey for most of us to buy, they are rapidly becoming more affordable. Combine your 3D printer with a Filabot or equivalent technology and there’s the potential to allow you to generate your own plastic cutlery, plates and much more without damaging the environment and maybe even helping it just a little.
6. Fighting Diseases and Helping Victims of War
Oxfam recently partnered with one tech firm because it believes that 3D printing could revolutionize humanitarian efforts. Their first project is creating a printable water-efficient hand-wash system that Syrian refugees can use to help fight diseases that result from unsanitary conditions.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, a 3D printer is helping to create low-cost parts for prosthetic limbs, enabling local medical teams to help more people with affordable care solutions that can increase patient mobility and make them more self-sufficient.
7. Healing our Broken Bones
We’ve already heard about how 3D printing could in the future be used to create replacement limbs and even human organs, but one way in which 3D printing could help us now is in the manufacturing of new, lightweight casts that can heal our broken bones more quickly than before.
One such cast invented by Turkish scientists is called Osteoid. Developed on an existing design that uses a lattice structure filled with ventilation holes to allow the the skin to breathe and therefore reduce itching and odor, Osteoid differs from its counterparts because the tailored cage framework can be plugged in to a low intensity pulsed ultrasound system, known as LIPUS. Use this for 20 minutes a day and it could help the limb heal up to 40% quicker, the makers claim. Now these claims still need independent and wide-scale testing, but the basic science behind applying low intensity ultrasound to heal bones more rapidly isn’t controversial.
To be sure, the cast is still in its test stages but has excited the medical field because, at the very least, it promises the kind of innovation that 3D printing and customizing can bring.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.