Custom 3-D Printing, which has become ultra-affordable in recent years, is largely seen as the domain of decorators looking to turn their favourite poems into art sculptures or designers looking to put the Christ in construction. (The Bit Drill Cross is one of the most popular items on NY-based 3-D printing site Shapeways).
But recently, this unique technology has been used in far more spectacular ways. Let's examine...
The U.S. government is embracing 3-D technology like a sugar-crazed VC. In the past month, mobile laboratories containing the Rapid Prototyping 3-D Printer have been deployed to war zones across Afghanistan; these mobile labs allow soldiers on the ground not only to restock inventory, but also to design new weapons and gear.
"[W]hat we went after is to connect the scientist to the soldier," Col. Pete Newell told Military.com. "Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier."
Gun enthusiasts, meanwhile, are following the army's lead, designing and printing fully operational firearms. An online gunsmith named HaveBlue recently uploaded his design for an AR-15 assault rifle to thingiverse.com, which can be reproduced using about 30 dollars of ABS plastic stock. Similarly, a gun-rights group called "Defense Distributed" is having a nation-wide contest to award $2,000 to whomever designs the best model of a 3-D printed firearm.
In Japan, a company called Fasotec uses MRI images to create accurate models of a patient's organs and bones. These model organs and bones are used for more than playing "Toss the Liver" during Happy Hour. The accurate patient models allow surgeons, doctors, and students to better plan for complex procedures.
Others are taking the technology even further. This month, nanoengineers at the University of San Diego used 3-D modeling to create three-dimensional blood vessels, allowing researchers to grow cells much more easily.
In the long-term, the scientists hope to print actual human tissue, which means that taking 20 years off your worn-out knee could one day be almost as easy as printing out your resume.
Fasotec has also partnered with the Ladies clinic in Tokyo to create a service called, "Shape of An Angel," which uses ultrasound images to render a 3-D model of a fetus.
This may sound like a service for billionaires in a post-apocalyptic novel, but the service runs about $1,250 and expecting mothers are flocking to the clinic for their model fetuses.
In other words, be careful before mocking the weird knickknack on your coworker's desk. It might just be a model of his or her unborn child.