Part 1

What are some of the world’s biggest problems? Education, healthcare, natural disasters…the list goes on. One thing they all have in common is that many researchers, companies, non-profits, and everyday people are helping to solve them with 3D printing. Let’s walk through some of the ways this innovative process is saving the world.


More and more people seem to be asking about what’s happening to jobs and industry in the United States. As of January 2015, the U.S. as a nation ranked 27th in math and 20th in science, according to a Pew Research Center study on education. How are we going to stay on the cutting edge while our education is not keeping up with the rest of the world? In order to fix a problem, we must first admit we have one. Second, we must ask, what are we going to do about it?

Some companies have been developing plans, syllabi, and educational kits to parallel public school lessons. 3D printing could become an instrumental learning tool, helping to illustrate learning fundamentals, inspiring creativity in learning, and educating students to think outside the box while learning about computer numeric controlled (CNC) machines and CAD programs that may benefit them as they move from the school to professional environment. Understanding CNC devices like a 3D printer is a sought-after skill in industry. In addition, the scientific and creative mind that understands how to design for 3D printing will continue to be valuable in the manufacturing sector.

Robotics and 3D printers are the fastest-growing technologies used in education and research. M.I.R.A. is the ideal platform for teaching for teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles at all levels.

Companies such as Afinia, XYZ Printing, and MakerBot have been working 3D printing into lesson plans. Printing out learning tools, STEM kits, and other materials not only helps students learn, but brings resources into the classroom that schools couldn’t otherwise afford. Even educational kits priced from $10 to $30 are too much when considering a class filled with 30 students. It isn’t possible to provide these kits en masse. But if the components can be printed, and a syllabus downloaded that aligns with what the school is teaching, the cost can be dramatically reduced.

3D printing fills a hands-on education hole left by some schools’ lack of a shop class that may have been cut due to budget, safety, or litigious concerns. 3D printers are in more than 5,000 schools across the U.S. While 3D printers for schools received some good initial headlines, the burden that came with them wound up being passed back and forth between the schools to the 3D printer companies. Schools were often ill-equipped to handle maintenance, budget in more filament, or do anything more educational than printing a chess piece.

Today, it looks like 3D printing companies and school have started to find some common ground and solutions that will surely progress 3D printing to new levels. Not only will this technology educate students better, it will have an exponential benefit as students raised on this technology move into STEM or management positions.

3D printing offers a whole new way of finding solutions that aren’t possible with traditional processes. Education can help strengthen the prime mover of tools—the brain. This can lead to better problem-solving skills, scientific literacy, and overall education.


Hands-on education can be difficult when the model is a cadaver. In the medical industry there are ethics and limited resources that may inhibit a young doctor’s training. Fortunately, 3D printing is working on medical training, too. This amazing process is also improving drug dosing, and could reduce the 25 people who die every day waiting for an organ transplant.

Having the ability to alter material properties within a print has led to realistic models of the human body. Realistic models of the body let student practice surgeries over and over before going into the operating room. In addition, doctors can use a CAT scan or MRI that can be used to generate an exact model of a patient in preparation or a procedure—and it doesn’t stop at models.

BioMimics vascular models allow for fine vascular structures down to an internal diameter of 2 mm and blood vessels of varying thicknesses to mimic different compliance. They can also operate in a wet lab set-up.

Inkjet and laser printers have provided a proof of concept to create a knee meniscus, heart valve, spinal disk, other types of cartilage and bone, and an artificial ear. There has even been an ear created that would extend to frequencies beyond the ability of our natural ears. While fully printed organs seem impossible, researchers have successfully printed miniature versions of them. There is a lot of hype around fully printed organs, but with current momentum, it’s possible that the next generation or two might see this technology realized.

Personalized drug dosing is another benefit 3D printing can help with, but like printing organs, it will greatly be delayed—and for good reason, due to research and regulations. A patient’s specific drug or drugs could be printed into a pill for exactly what is needed. For example, if 300 mg of a drug is needed, but there is only an FDA-approved pill available in 200 and 500 mg, what would be the right dosage? If it were possible to approve specific doses, it could be printed into the perfect amount needed and no more.

Not only could this improve health without under- or overdosing a patient, it could greatly reduce drug inventory. Personalized medicine could be advanced to where a pharmacy simple carries the basic elements. Then the pharmaceutical manufacturers are replaced with an e-mail from the doctors, a database of medication formulas, and a 3D printer.

Glasgow chemist Lee Cronin found a way to turn a 3D printer into a universal mixing chemistry set. Since most drugs are just mixes of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and perhaps a mix of paraffin and vegetable oil, a 3D printer could use these materials to print whatever you like. While the technology seems to be a bit off in the future, this is enough to worry law enforcement.

Humanitarian Crisis Response

Have 3D printer, will travel: The novel printer by Kijenzi is robust and easily fits into a duffel bag to get to areas that are in need.

It isn’t just law enforcement that has its eye on 3D printing. First responders and humanitarian relief efforts are finding way to get printers in tough areas. Some of the most pressing issues for humanitarian relief are logistical ones. A recent study was done on bringing 3D printing into hard-to-reach areas. The Kijenzi 3D printer was designed to be transported a duffel bag and assembled anywhere. Furthermore, the printer can be run off of solar panels for areas without power.

A swarm of five Kijenzi 3D printers were evaluated for rapid part manufacturing over a two-month period at health facilities and other community locations in both rural and urban areas throughout Kisumu County, Kenya. They were successful based on their ability to function independently of infrastructure, transportability, ease of use, ability to withstand harsh environments, and costs.

“Supply chain logistics for humanitarian responses are some of the most complex that exist,” noted the study. “It is challenging to forecast both the demand (due to difficulties in knowing both the timing of a disaster and details of the population affected) and the supply, which is often fueled by donations. A massive mismatch between the supplies delivered and the supplies that are needed is often inevitable both in quantity and kind. As 60–80% of all aid money is spent on procurement, this mismatch represents not only costly errors but errors that can have negative long-term effects on local markets and economies.”

3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but researchers are still finding ways to use this process. Today 3D printing is helping to tackle some of our biggest problems. In part two, we’ll discuss how it continues to change the world by helping the environment and changing the way we think about explosives. From making students smarter, people healthier, or making humans more humanitarian, 3D printing might be just what we need to save the world.

Editor’s Note: The full source for the 3D printer is here, including BOM, operations manual, software, and 3D design files. To build: First follow the basic instructions in the manuscript. This design is adapted from the basic MOST Delta 3D printer build, which may help with details.

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Part 2

How one process may single-handedly solve some of society’s greatest problems.

Our previous installment discussed how 3D printing is having a significant impact on education, healthcare, and humanitarian relief. Continuing on, let’s examine how the process is helping to reduce pollution, as well as to protect soldiers and civilians from explosives.

The Environment

Shipping and logistics

Part 1 detailed how 3D printing will reduce the shipping and logistics of pills and humanitarian relief, but this trend looks like it is going to become a lot bigger. Ing, the bank and financial service corporation, predicts that printing could cut trade between countries by 40%: “For now it has very little effect on cross-border trade. This will change once high speed 3D printing makes mass production with 3D printers economically viable. The first technical steps have already been taken…3D printers use far less labor, reducing the need to import intermediate and final goods from low wage countries.”

Admitting that it is tricky to define the exact potential of 3D printing, ing said some experts expect a share of 50% in manufacturing over the next two decades. Depending on growth and investment the report suggested that 50% of manufactured goods will be printed by 2060 with current investment growth. This figure could possibly be achieved as early as 2040 if investments double every five years.

A large sector will be aftermarket parts for vehicles. As printing advances, car, truck, tractor, and motorcycle parts could be e-mailed or downloaded, and printed out at a parts store or mechanic’s shop. All of this brings obvious energy savings.

More efficient travel

For things that still have to move, like people getting to work, 3D printing is reducing the energy needed to get there. By printing multiple parts in one printed piece fasteners and weight can be reduced. With new printing technologies increasing speeds and reducing cost, designer are able to invest into a deeper or more radical designs impossible with traditional processes.

Students designed this scale cab of an excavator to win a design contest by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This model will be 3D printed for a full-size 3D printing excavator at the 2017 CONEXPO-CON. Topographical optimization was among the design features that helped the students achieve the victory.

Currently, weight is reduced by adjusting a part’s infill, reducing extraneous material that would be too difficult to remove by traditional means, and reducing parts. As designers become more comfortable, they may start taking a more radical approach. With software and 3D printing designers might chose to take advantage of topology optimization (TO). It is a simulation tool in modern CAD software designed to help create a near-optimized part.

The simulation methods vary from software to software—it can be an additive or subtractive process. Some chisel away at the old design, removing material that is not crucial to strength or structure. Others grow parts from scratch until the design has reached an optimal structure. Solidworks, for example, uses the subtractive process implementing the Tosca optimization engine. “We felt the subtractive method was most attractive to our customers…with existing geometry you want to refine,” said Stephen Endersby, the company’s director of product portfolio management. “With Tosca, we also have the technology that has a track record in-house. So, it was a good, safe solution for our users.”

TO is virtually impossible to manufacture with traditional methods, but 3D printing has the potential to handle complex geometries in a minimal waste process with lightweight materials.

Reducing weight saves on fuel cost and the pollution that would have been generated by burning it. Companies might not be concerned with the reduction in pollution, but saving weight greatly decreases fuel cost. In addition, it can give electric vehicles longer range, helping to curb CAFE regulations.

Reducing cost is accelerating 3D printing in the aerospace industry, too. GE, for example, is planning to mass-produce 25,000 LEAP engine nozzles with 3D printing. According to a ReportsnReports study, “The Global Aerospace 3D Printing Market to Grow at 55.85% CAGR during the period 2016–2020,” the primary driver of 3D printing in the aerospace market is the miniaturization of jet engines. So not only is 3D printing reducing weight or parts, but also its physical size.

If 3D printing is able to reduce the need for resources by using less, and open access to technology without the need of logistics, could there be a reduction in the tension that comes from a lack of or access to these resources?


Reducing materials may not be much of an interest to military tanks or armored machines, but the military is using 3D printing in many different ways. In the Pantex Plant, a federal nuclear weapons facility in Amarillo, Tex., security is obviously important when handling explosives. And if the importance of safety increases with the size of the potential explosion, nuclear weapons have no room for error.

Nuclear safety

The Additive Manufacturing team has ventured into topology optimization in an effort to create stronger tools with less material. Existing designs are evaluated and anything nonessential is eliminated. The process is expected to not only save money, but also to increase safety margins.

Mechanical engineer Jason Jeffers and Tek Ferguson use a mathematical approach to design better fixtures using less material.

An example of a component recently selected for topology optimization is a fixture for the B61-12, America’s most sophisticated nuclear weapon. The B61-12 is currently undergoing a Life Extension Program (LEP) that will replace aging components and assess future weapon performance.

To ensure LEP success, the B61-12 was selected for the additive manufacturing for critical tooling project to identify possible improvements over the current conventional manufacturing methods, and multiple fasteners used to assemble individual fabricated components. By using the topology optimization approach, the additive manufacturing team was able to develop a new version of the fixture that exceeds the performance of its predecessor, significantly reducing the associated manufacturing costs, weight, and time.

Just one of many additive manufacturing success stories at Pantex involves a recent partnership between the additive manufacturing team and the High Explosives Manufacturing department. For years, the latter department relied on a disposable holding fixture to keep high explosives in place during the testing process. Made of glue, acrylic, and a special pad that alone cost more than $30, the fixture was expensive, time-consuming to assemble, and inadequate for the department’s needs.

The additive manufacturing team found a solution by creating a new, one-piece holding fixture through additive manufacturing. The updated fixture is reusable and eliminates the need for pads and glue, thus saving the department more than $300,000 and thousands of work hours every year.

Military models

3D printing is blowing up in the explosives industry. Not only are universities and research centers 3D printing TNT and thermite, but the military is printing model of explosive to practices shooting at them. Yes, you heard right—the U.S. military practices shooting at bombs.

Los Alamos chemists Bryce Tappan (left) and Alex Mueller (right) watch as the Hyrel System 30M 3D printer produces a little cone of mock explosive material. The process allows custom tailoring of internal structures that was not previously possible.

It is possible to disarm an explosive by shooting out the fuse! Models of bombs can be printed and used as targets. The custom model, made with traditional processes, was expensive. The cost could have limited training, but 3D printing these bomb models has alleviated this concern.

Printing bombs

Shooting a steel slug through the fuse of some bombs will render it a paperweight. A custom model of these bombs originally cost $100 each. While this sounds expensive, it is imperative these models are accurate. Now, though, the military can train more extensively because 3D printing them costs $5.

Bombs are also being printed. A paper from the Los Alamos National Laboratory details how Alex Mueller is leading a team to create the next-generation of explosives using 3D printing. By examining the microstructure and manipulating internal hollow spaces of TNT, the scientists are trying to control and tailor a new form of explosives.

Making an explosive more difficult to detonate when there’s an accident also makes it more difficult to detonate intentionally. The behavior of explosives such as TNT is largely controlled through hot spots. Introducing inclusions, such as air bubbles, into TNT will trap air inside, causing it to compress and rapidly heat up. The uneven flow into and around these bubbles results in points of intense heat called hot spots. These hot spots largely control the energy necessary to initiate detonation in TNT and other high explosives.

This is where 3D printing is disrupting explosives. With the ability to control material, and voids, Mueller’s team looks to control the release of energy through a sophisticated arrangement of hot spots.

“The ability to tailor sensitivity and the resultant energy release in the chemical reaction zone would be a holy grail in detonation physics research,” says Dana Dattelbaum, a Los Alamos detonation expert. “Control and manipulation of structures at the microscopic scales through 3D printing is an exciting step toward achieving these goals.”

Explosive containers and parts

So the military is printing models of bombs, and bombs themselves, and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Marines are custom printing the containers for explosives to go into. Explosives can be used in many ways. The problem is mixing the materials in differing amounts to match the size of the explosion desired.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Marines tested 3D-printed small containers to be printed to just the right size needed to do the job. By 3D printing the containers they can minimize the amount of containers and parts they need to ship to a base or carry in the field. Using 3D printing for military purposes is so handy, they are already deployed in multiple active combat zones to be used as mini-factories for military applications.  

This technology can carry over to civilian life in the form on airbags and other technologies that are helping make soldiers and civilians safer.

3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but researchers are still finding ways to use this process. Today 3D printing is helping to tackle some of our biggest problems. From reducing pollution to making safer explosives, we are just scratching the surface of how 3D printing can be used to make the world a better place.

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3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing, News