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What 3D printers are good for: inspiring examples of numerous startups and individuals achieving success thanks to 3D printing

Hello! In my article “What is 3D-printing and why it is so exciting” I have briefly touched on this question, arguing that 3D printers give us freedom to manufacture whatever we need, independence from manufacturers for whom addressing each person’s needs isn’t commercially feasible.

I’ve decided to expand on this interesting topic and show in more detail where and why 3D printers are being used and where they are expected to be used in the nearest future, going beyond the situation I mentioned before, that of having a need of a spare part for some household appliance or whatever. But this topic is too broad to be covered in one article, so this one is the beginning of a separate series of articles about various applications of 3D printing.

The impeding 3D-printing revolution and conventional manufacture processes.

The simple truth is, producing something on a 3D printer is usually much more expensive and time-consuming than manufacturing the same thing on a machine or a whole production line specially honed for the production of this specific thing. A factory that, say, manufactures tableware by utilizing the process of injection molding, will, in most likelihood, never even consider switching its full production capacity to 3D printing tableware instead. That’s why impending 3D printing revolution doesn’t mean that all the other techniques will suddenly become obsolete.

However, there are still a number of applications where 3D printing is or will shortly be very useful indeed.

Prototyping and producing the end product for individuals.

There are many among us who want to try their hand at creating something new, inventing something that would make a difference and perhaps developing it into a full-scale business once it proves to be a success. But almost always conventional process of developing any new hardware is so expensive it stops would be inventors and kills the idea before the first prototype is built, much less tested, rebuilt and retested a few times more and finally the first butch of the product is released… And what if it doesn’t take off? Is the risk worth it?

With a 3D printers thousands of makers and enthusiasts around the world started experimenting and turning their ideas to life. Here are just a few examples:


1. Prosthetic 3D printed arms: Robohand, etc.


This is one great example of how 3D printing enabled a small team of enthusiasts to do a good thing and develop a whole company that specializes in designing and creating custom prosthetic hands. Richard Van, a carpenter in Johannesburg, South Africa, had lost four of the fingers of his right hand as a result of an unfortunate work accident. For a carpenter, having a disabled hand is a big detriment from professional point of view, so he decided on the day of this incident to use the tools available to him to correct the situation. For several months Richard had been trading design ideas with Ivan Owen from Washington State. Ivan had experience in creating mechanical prop hands, which he used to make suggestions, while Richard attempted to bring the designs to life in his workshop. The process was long and was literally taking weeks per cycle. MakerBot, a producer of 3D printers, decided to assist them in their venture by making each of them a gift of a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D-pinter.

“The impact that utilizing the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer had was incredible. It dramatically increased the speed at which we could prototype and try out ideas, and gave us the ability to both hold physical copies of the exact same thing, even though we were separated by 10,000 miles,” Ivan Owen said.


Currently Robohand teaches everyone who would like to be able to print prosthetic hands for people and a banner on their homepage informs us they’ve already helped more than 200 people. They’ve also formed a strategic alliance with a college that has acquired more than 50 3D printers for use by their pre-engineering students and had been looking for a way to incorporate this emerging technology into the current programs offered by the college, while simultaneously developing a new curriculum for creating Robohand devices on those 53 3D printers. So it looks like Robohand has gotten a whole 3D printing farm!



2. T8 Robotic radio-controlled spider.


Another great example of a successful company created with help of 3D printing. The initial model was designed and created using a 3D printer, after which the authors have demonstrated the results of their work on the internet and collected money from people who rushed to pre-order such a robot for themselves. Since then, using the money they’ve earned, they were able to obtain tooling to produce parts for the robot much faster and cheaper. If you visit their homepage, you’ll see that the new T8X robotic spider costs four times cheaper than the version assembled from 3D printed details! Well, they were selling it at the price of around $1,350 at the beginning. Would they be able to do this the other way around, finding money to build a prototype, then finding still more money to obtain the tooling? Maybe, but this would mean great financial risks as well as a whole host of other uncertainties and problems, so, most likely, if not for 3D printing, they wouldn’t have even begun.

T8 uses the total of 26 servo motors, 3 in each leg and 2 in the abdomen.

With so many legs and motors, very intense calculations have to be made in order to translate a command (such as to move forward or, say, turn left) into a complicated sequence of movements of all the 26 motors. Those calculations are carried out in real time with a powerful Bigfoot Inverse Kinematics Engine.


3. Forty2 Solar Generator by Peppermint Energy.



In two words, Forty2 is a portable device that combines in one mobile unit a solar power generator, power storage (lithium ion battery unit), efficiency monitoring interface and power inversion.  


“It is powerful enough to run small appliances, light up a small army of LED lights, charge several laptops or a couple dozen cell phones, or power a pretty big TV.”


Just like the guys from Robugtix, creators of Forty2 didn’t choose the standard way, they chose to utilize the modern technology of 3D printing to develop a fully working prototype which they then used in their internet fundraising campaign. The campaign was a success as they have raised much more money than they were asking for. Here is the page of their fundraising campaign at Kickstarter. Would they be able to raise these funds without having a working prototype to demonstrate? Not likely.




  1. Orbotix


During the time Ian Bernstein was working for a robotics company, he was dreaming of being able to control robots with a smartphone. And so Orbotix was born.

“When we started Orbotix, I was building all the Sphero prototypes with paper clips and brass and stuff like that, and you can only go so far,” Bernstein said. “Having the MakerBot 3D printer and being able to make more advanced parts, we’re doing bigger and better things now.”

Does it all mean 3D printing is only good for small companies during their launch period? Absolutely not! Learn how big businesses like Ford make use of 3D printing to great benefit for themselves.

Thank you for reading this article!  If you have any questions, suggestions or comments, let me know in the comments section.

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