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10 materials you didn’t know could be 3D printed

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

You probably know that most 3D printers print out plastic. Current models like the da Vinci Mini and the UP! Mini use PLA/ABS filament, squirting it out in layers to create everything from cutlery to key-rings. But as the technology develops, plastic isn’t the only material that can be 3D printed.

For example, there have been huge advances in 3D printing metal. Instead of squirting out molten metal, a base of metal powder is melted using a laser, building the design layer by layer. The process is called Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and the process already works with stainless steel, aluminium, nickel and titanium.

We’ve already seen 3D printed engine parts, jewelry and even titanium ribs, while Airbus APWorks recently used DMLS to create the Light Rider — a 3D printed aluminium motorbike.

You can also print out pottery. Instead of using plastic, 3D models can be constructed using a combination of alumina silica ceramic powder, porcelain and silica.

All manner of homeware can be created this way, from plates and bowls to mugs and vases. The advantage? As i Materialise points out, ceramic is “the only food safe 3D printing material.”

The Mcor ARKe, meanwhile, bills itself as the ‘world’s first full-colour desktop 3D printer’, one that’s capable of creating 3D models using ‘everyday office paper’.

It works with a spool of paper, gluing sheets together, cutting them into the required shape and then printing onto that shape to produce a finished 3D model. The results, as you can see below, are extraordinary.

Mcor ARKe 3D printing example
The Mcor ARKe uses paper, razors and glue to 3D print amazing sculptures like this.

That’s not all 3D printing technology can do. German chemical company Wacker is reportedly working on the ACEO Imagine Series K — the world’s first silicone rubber 3D printer. While, the Awamoko 3D Foam Pen, from the Japanese toy manufacturer Shine, allows you to build 3D objects using child-friendly soap bubbles instead of plastic.

On a larger scale, 3D printers can be used to build concrete houses. Recently, Chinese company HuaShang Tengda showcased a two-storey, 400 square-metre 3D printed villa. Unlike other concrete dwellings that have been 3D printed in sections and then assembled on-site, this amazing construction was squirted in one go.

A 3D printed house in China
In China, this concrete villa was 3D printed on-site – you can see the layers if you look closely. Image via HuaShang Tengda.

As well as concrete, industrial-sized 3D printers can also work with mud, earth and clay. The 40 foot-tall Big Delta WASP is a case in point, offering a way to construct rudimentary houses at a low price, using naturally-occurring materials, in any part of the world.

The technology could be a life-saver.

In the future, perhaps a 3D printer-cum-oven will construct and cook your food. It’s no so far fetched. Devices like the Natural Machines Foodini can work with a variety of ingredients — pasta, pureed meat and chocolate — and are ideal for dishes that require forming, shaping or layering. Foodini’s examples include pizza, crackers, ravioli and miniature burgers.

3D printed red pepper crackers
These red pepper crackers were 3D printed with a Natural Machines Foodini.

Bioprinting is another future use for 3D printers and the Independent reports that scientists have managed to grow and print cow cartilage. “Our goal is to create tissue that can be used to replace large amounts of worn out tissue or design patches,” said lead scientist Dr Ibrahim Ozbolat, from Pennsylvania State University.

According to the report, cartilage is a good candidate for 3D bioprinting as it is a simple tissue, lacking any blood vessels and containing only one cell type.

So there you have it. Alongside plastic, 3D printers are capable of printing in metal, ceramics, paper, mud, clay, concrete, silicon rubber, soap bubbles, multiple food ingredients and cow cartilage, taking us from 3D printing to bioprinting. The future, it seems, will be custom-made.

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