Then and Now: 3D Printing
3D printing has transformed into a versatile technology capable of producing complex structures and futuristic designs. An example is ICON's Vulcan construction system: A home-sized 3D-printer.

Advancements in 3D printing have revolutionized everything from healthcare to the automotive industry. The concept of this now commonplace engineering tool first surfaced in 1980, when Hideo Kodama filed a patent for a 3D printing application that never commercially made it. With the world's largest polymer 3D printer having just been unveiled by the University of Maine this past week, it's safe to say the technology has come a long way.

See the Timeline in an Infographic: The History of 3D Printing

Here are four ways 3D printing has transformed over the years.

3D-printed electric cars

Building a Strati at the 2014 IMTS in Chicago. Image: Local Motors Inc.
The ability to create lightweight, customizable parts is paving the way for sustainable and affordable transportation solutions. 3D printing and additive manufacturing allow for faster automotive prototyping than traditional injection molding and machining, and lightweight materials translate to reduced vehicle weight, improved performance, and better fuel efficiency.

Widely considered the first 3D-printed car, the Strati was printed on a show floor in Chicago in 2014. Except for its mechanical parts, Strati was entirely built into a single material piece out of ABS plastic reinforced with carbon fiber. The battery, motor, and other mechanical components were assembled after the 3D printing and cutting.

Cadillac CELESTIQ at the 2023 US Open in New York. Image: Nuri Nguttu
Hearing the term “3D-printed,” however, does not necessarily mean a car is made like the Strati. Most of the vehicles made with additive manufacturing only have individual parts or prototypes that have been 3D-printed. Traditional machining and manufacturing methods are not likely to go away anytime soon, given the limitations of cost, time, and materials.

3D printing is nonetheless continuing to revolutionize automobile manufacturing and design, making its way into showrooms and garages with car manufacturers like General Motors and Bugatti unveiling luxury and hyper-cars incorporating metal and polymer 3D-printed parts in their designs. GM’s 2024 Cadillac CELESTIQ has over 100 3D-printed components, including a metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) steering wheel, 3D-printed structural seatbelt D-rings, window switches, and other parts.

3D-printed food

Model 2 Fab@Home 3D printer and printed parts, 2010. Image: Hodlipson
Mechanical engineers in Hod Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University introduced food printing back in the early 2000s when exploring how to print machine components out of multiple materials. They selected ingredients that were easy to work with—like cookie dough, cheese, and chocolate—in experiments that eventually led to Lipson co-launching the 3D food printer, Fab@Home.

What ensued from those humble beginnings was a barrage of 3D food printing. In 2013, a restaurant with an entire 3D-printed food menu opened to a flood of media coverage and a world tour to boot. Big name pasta brand Barilla launched 3D-printed pasta designs. Chocolates in all shapes and forms popped up on the 3D food printing scene.

GOOD Meat 3D-printed cultivated chicken. Image: Eat Just, Inc
Though some of the hype has died down—the restaurant has not posted updates since 2017—more practical uses of the technology, such as 3D-printed plant-based and animal-based meat products, continue to show potential.

The company GOOD Meat describes its product as being the world’s first cultivated meat approved for sale. Animal cells taken from eggs and living animals are immersed in a nutrient substance to naturally grow and divide over four to six weeks. Once harvested, the cells are shaped into familiar meat forms using molding and 3D printing. The end result is “real, delicious meat with an identical nutritional profile to conventionally raised meat, but with less impact on our planet and less risk of contamination,” according to GOOD Meat’s website.

3D-printed houses

Timelapse of 3D-printed TECLA house project by WASP. Video: Alfredo Milano
This 3D printing trend is still fairly new on the market, with the earliest habitable 3D-printed homes only having appeared in the past few years. The challenges of building houses using additive manufacturing are sizable, including the structural integrity and durability of a house, the cost of scaling up production, and the design complexity.

One of the first dwellings to be completed using 3D printing was TECLA—an amalgamation of technology and clay.

ICON Homes 3D-printed house in Wolf Ranch community outside Austin, Texas. Image: HUD
WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project) and MCA (Mario Cucinella Architects) built the prototype for a home in Italy using soil found at the small-town location mixed with water, rice husk fibers, and a binder. The group believes that this method of using locally available resources is one that can be replicated in rural areas where industrial construction materials are less available. 

Efforts to scale 3D-printed house construction to entire neighborhoods are underway both in the U.S. and globally. Described as the world’s largest 3D-printed community, “the Genesis Collection” at Wolf Ranch is one such neighborhood just outside Austin, Texas, comprised of 100 houses—many of which are already sold or available for purchase.

3D bioprinting

3D printing biological tissues and materials that mimic human cells or tissues first entered the medical field in the early 2000s. Researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital built the first 3D urinary bladders by hand: They constructed collagen and polymer scaffolds, and then layered them with patients’ cells to make them into functioning organs.

Bioengineers developed a way to incorporate blood vessels into 3D-printed living skin. Image: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Bioprinting has progressed since then to include the development of prosthetics unaltered by humans, the first 3D-printed blood vessel, and bioprinted bones to name a few of the advancements. Beyond the use of medical grafts and implants, scientists also engineer replicate body parts to help doctors study their patients prior to surgery.

Perhaps one of the more surprising advancements in recent bioprinting has been its launch into orbit: The BioFabrication Facility (BFF) was established in 2019 by Redwire Corporation to use microgravity for bioprinting human organs aboard the ISS. In September 2023, Redwire announced its first successful human knee meniscus bioprinting at the BFF.

The first human knee meniscus successfully 3D-bioprinted in orbit using the BioFabrication Facility. Image: NASA

The reason for bioprinting in space? According to NASA, “In Earth’s gravity, bioprinting requires a scaffold or other type of structure to support tissues, but in the near-weightlessness of the space station’s orbit, tissues grow in three dimensions without such support.” Other investigations underway include evaluating the printing and processing of cardiac tissue samples, as well as creating artificial retinas that could help restore sight to the millions worldwide suffering from degenerative retinal diseases.


Sarah Alburakeh is a strategic content editor.

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