Photo: Makerbot

Bespoke products printed in 3D

Construction and mechanics Innovation and product development Medicine and medico technology Artificial organs Hearing aids Food production
Organs, jet engines and sports equipment. 3D printing opens up opportunities to design one-of-a-kind products. And this naturally provides the perfect conditions for niche companies.

When David Bue Pedersen flew to the Danish island of Bornholm in June to take part in the People Meeting (Folkemødet) event, he brought a genuine calf kidney with him. Holding the kidney in his hand, he captured the audience’s interest and won the ‘Copenhagen Science Slam’ competition, beating two researchers from Copenhagen Business School and the University of Copenhagen.

The DTU researcher’s aim was to talk about some of the latest things it is possible to produce on a 3D printer today. In recent years, it has actually become possible to print everything from pizzas to sports equipment, buildings, aircraft engines and organs.

“I see 3D printing flourishing in niche areas, where people need to make small batches of bespoke products such as hearing aids,” relates David Bue Pedersen, a researcher at DTU Mechanical Engineering and the first person in Denmark to be awarded a PhD in 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

“I can also see an area where industrial design is embracing the technology, because you can experiment with shapes in new ways, and it may even be possible to build houses using a system of giant nozzles that ‘print’ concrete layer by layer.”

Remarkable geometric freedom

The motto seems to be: if it is shapeable, it can be 3D printed. The benefits are obvious. Building products up directly from a computer model cuts down on material consumption and work processes. In addition, the technology makes it possible to work with extensive geometrical freedom. It also opens the door to shaping advanced one-of-a-kind products that were previously beyond the bounds of possibility.

"I see 3D printing flourishing in niche areas, where people need to make small batches of bespoke products such as hearing aids."
David Bue Pedersen, researcher at DTU Mechanical Engineering

The technology was kick-started in 2006 when the first American patents expired and the market for 3D printing opened up. This coincided neatly with the rise of the culture of crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and open source code. As such, conditions were excellent for the first small, innovative start-ups that began re-inventing the 3D printer and squeezing past the heavyweight industrial giants.

Today, DTU is assisting both start-ups and established companies with their 3D printing projects. At the University, David Bue Pedersen, other researchers and students are all working to make 3D printers faster, more efficient and able to work with new materials. Some of their projects are carried out in the research laboratory, some in the Fablab teaching laboratory.

No new industrial revolution

In the Fablab teaching laboratory at DTU, it is currently possible to print using plaster powder, ABS plastic string, liquid plastic and paper put together to form a laminate material. In principle, however, it is possible to print in any materials that are fluid and can harden —silicone, metal, tissue, ceramic materials, chocolate and caramel, to name but a few.
Even though 3D printing is set to revolutionize specific niche areas, there is a long way to go before the 3D printer becomes an authentic game-changer for all types of production. David Bue Pedersen explains:

“Many experts have predicted that 3D printing will result in a new industrial revolution, but this may have to wait a while ... The truth of the matter is that even though 3D printing already allows remarkable design freedom, there are still major limitations on material selection, speed and costs. Moreover, 3D printing is often just a single process link in a much larger process chain.”

Seven things you can print

 Photo: Colourbox  


Companies have now started to print bespoke frames for glasses.

The process involves customers uploading photos of themselves to a webshop and then dragging a frame onto the picture and adjusting it to suit the shape of their heads.

 Photo: Colourbox  


The technology for ‘printing houses’ already exists. In fact, a team in China is using a 3D printer to construct a seven-storey culture building.

The question is whether it is cheaper to build a house with a computer-controlled concrete canon, or to prefabricate elements at a factory and then drive them to the construction site. Whatever the outcome, it is sure to rewrite the rule book for this industry.

 Photo: Colourbox  

Hearing aids

3D printing reduces the number of work processes needed to make hearing aids, which previously entailed a long, time-consuming manual process.

It is now possible to use a ball camera to digitalize the shape of the ear canal, and then create a customer-specific hearing aid on a 3D printer.

 Illustration: Colourbox  


The first 3D-printed kidneys have already been surgically implanted in rabbits.This is an area known as ‘tissue engineering’ and centres on making ‘spare parts’ for a body using living tissue drawn from the patient or animal.

Researchers area also using the technique for skin grafts. Instead of transplanting skin from one part of the body to another, it is now possible to take a layer of living cells, place it in a jelly medium and then build it up gradually into a 3D-structure.

 Photo: Colourbox  

Air travel

Aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are using 3D-printed metal components to make stronger gas turbines and jet engines than previously.

These 3D prints are the work of GE Aviation, a subsidiary of the American technology and service giant General Electric.

 Illustration: Colourbox  

Sports equipment

More and more sports disciplines are beginning to use relatively expensive manufacturing processes, adapting them to suit the anatomy of the individual athlete.

It all started with shaping parts for Formula 1 cars to make them lighter and more aerodynamic.Now, however, printers are used to make conceptual sports equipment such as football boots in 3D. The objective here is to help football players run faster.

 Photo: Colourbox  


Is it really possible to print a pizza? Yes it is.

Food printers work just like any other 3D printer on the market, ‘building’ up prints one layer at a time. The only difference is that the material used in the food printer is dough, which is laid out on a piece of baking paper and then baked in an oven. Enjoy!


Vision: In ten years, we’ll be printing 3D-blood vessels

Photo: Marianne Vang RydeEven though it is already possible to 3D-print organs, it is still difficult to get them to function in a living body. One of the problems is the blood supply. Professor Niels Bent Larsen is working on a solution.

The human body simply could not function without the comprehensive system of blood vessels which make sure sufficient blood reaches each and every tiny cell. Recreating such a system in plastic—in three dimensions and on just as tiny a scale as in real life—is a challenge that researchers around the world are battling to overcome. Professor Niels Bent Larsen from DTU Nanotech is one one them, and he has made such progress in his work that he thinks this will be possible within the coming decade.

“One of the challenges is to make the vessels stiff enough that we can attach the hoses carrying the blood to them, but still soft as an organ inside, so the cells thrive on them. However, we have made huge strides along the path by developing a 3D printer that enables us to print using light and different colours to define the rigidity inside the material down to the smallest detail,” he explains.

Professor Larsen does not believe that in the immediate future it will be possible to create artificial organs for surgical implantation in a living body. However, once the artificial system of blood vessels is in place, it should be possible to build artificial organs—such as a liver or a piece of heart—outside the body. These printed organs could then be put to all kinds of uses: from developing and testing bespoke medicine to personalized cancer therapy.