3D Printing: what can’t you print?


The idea of 3D printing reminds me of the saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. 3D printing to me, seems to spin the lesson on its heels. Rather than learning instructions which can be repeated over and over, one simply loads instructions into a 3D printer, to have nearly anything created as many times as they wish. So one person can write the instructions, while any person with a 3D printer can simply load the instructions, and sit back as the work is done for them.

Not as new as you think

The first working 3D printer was created in 1984, and needless to say, things have improved since then. When I first heard about 3D printing, it was related to people designing simple 3D concepts of house plans on a computer and then being able to print these as real world models which they could hold and show off. These days, I am hearing about complex objects such as working clocks, a remote controlled aircraft and even the possibility of human organs like livers.

How does 3D printing work?

My basic understanding is that a set of digital instructions are loaded into a 3D printer,. which will then “print” the desired product. Materials used vary widely from plastics and wax, to titanium and even human tissue. There are two main techniques used in 3D printing.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

The nozzle used to extrude the materials is heated so that the material is melted and able to be placed as designed. The nozzle moves along its x, y and z axis to construct layer after layer of the product until completion.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

In this process, a high powered laser fuses powdered forms of different materials. The work is done on the surface of the powder bed. Once the first layer is complete, another layer of powder is placed on top, and the process is repeated until the object is finally formed.

The future: controversial applications versus radical change

More recently, there has been controversy after instructions for creating an operational gun were published so that anyone with an appropriate 3D printer could load the instructions and print a ready to fire gun, without a licence to do so. This certainly poses further questions as to what could potentially be created in the near future which needs to be treated with caution.

3D printing could revolutionise the world in many ways including reducing:

  • the need for manual labour,
  • waste during the production process and
  • the carbon footprint of goods that have to be shipped to a destination other than their point of manufacture.

There are even applications in space! NASA plan to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station to make spare parts and tools.

The prices of current top end 3D printers are realistically only in the reach of companies and institutions. Smaller 3D printers are advertised for around AUD1000 , however these can be a little limited in the complexity of what they are able to create. However at the rate we’re going, it sounds like it won’t be long before 3D printers can print a copy of themselves. Which is great for a buy 1 get 1 free deal.

Would you consider buying a 3D in the future? What would you use it for? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo credit: kakissel


  1. David says:

    I the idea of printing spares for mechanical items appeals to me and I see great possibilities to be freed of the burden of isolation that contributes to so much waste of energy ,time & resources

  2. john says:

    Bought one (3D touch) and have printed many replacemnt part for items around the house that would have been difficult to replace if not impossible ie “robbinhood” fold away ironing board. several knobs and switches that had cracked etc. Useful so far for school projects and small concept protypes, lost leggo parts and some plastic car parts that needed to be refreshed. Moving onto more adventurous parts next…

  3. john says:

    sorry – that was folding bracket for the “RobinHood” Ironingboard.

  4. Baz says:

    These printers have come a long way since I first heard about them. What will be possible in ten years time. i would like to know more about them. Can they scan an object then reproduce it? Where do the instructions come from?

    • Paul G says:

      the instructions come from modelling software such as blender, DAZ3d, even CAD.
      currently 3D printers are not able to scan but you can with alot of fiddling around scan using your webcam preferably buy a proper cam scan unit.

  5. I was building mainframe computers in the 1960s when only very large companies, a few large universities and powerful military establishments could afford to own and operate them. Likewise over the next few years 3D printing will change everything about product design, manufacturing and distribution.

  6. Mick Boyd says:

    Wow.Never have to buy another golf ball.Print my own golf clubs!!

  7. Mike S says:

    Looks great if one is into model making such as model railways and cars. But how do you program it! To be or not to be – that is the question.

  8. Viv Scott says:

    In the health area, besides it creating ‘scaffolding’ for cells to grow into organs, it will also come into more everyday use in hospitals.

    A NZ designer has created a new 3D cast for broken bones. Definite advantages over bulky, itchy, plaster casts.

  9. Jeff says:

    The 3D printing concept is mind blowing, I am a Hydraulic Engineer (oil type i.e. Machinery) and also a trades qualified Fitter and Turner prior to Engineering – natural progession as I was in the Hydraulics Industry as a Fitter & Turner and during my apprenticeship spent 20% of my time as a “Fitter and Turner” and 80% of my time as a Hydraulic Technician.
    The perfection of the 3D printing process will change the whole face of industry but is really based on the materials able to be used on the process i.e. Metals although ceramics in many instances will provide a more viable alternative.
    I dislike the negative spin the media is putting on this technology as I am sure the true criminals out there who want guns to hurt people will always be able to get them via the black market or what ever criminal organisation they deal with. The reallity is technology is not the evil, people are and the dumb ones will probably destruct themselves in the process!
    The technology maybe a revolution in the future and should be respected such.