This article was updated in January 2023 to reflect changing conditions, prices and trends.
3D printing technology is now used for a vast array of products – from rocket parts to food, face coverings, medical products, rubbish bins and buildings.
While the technology is still developing and is not yet used in mass production, it offers clear and exciting benefits to manufacturing businesses, including SMEs.
What products can be 3D printed?
A huge range of products can be 3D printed – from basic items like cutlery and vases to furniture, food, houses and dental implants. As the technology improves, a wider range of materials can be used to create a greater number of shapes and sizes.
3D printing can create simple products for around the home, from juicers to coasters to shelves – and these can take just minutes to print. At the other end of the scale, 3D printing can be used for more complex products – one area being explored is creating human organs using 3D printing to support organ transplants and replace human body parts.
11 Examples of manufacturers using 3D Printing
Numerous manufacturers now use 3D printing – or produce goods that allow clients or consumers to try out 3D printing themselves. We’ve compiled 11 examples from a range of industries around the world – from startups, to research organisations, to large multinational businesses.
1. Apis Cor: The largest 3D-printed building in the world
US company Apis Cor’s claim to fame is that it has created the largest 3D printed building in the world – a 32-foot tall building in Dubai. The company uses a huge robotic 3D printer to create its designs, which it says will “transform the way we think about the construction industry.”
2. Special Studio: 3D-printed homeware made from recycled materials
New Zealand-based Special Studio was established in 2018 with the aim to minimise the environmental footprint of producing goods by repurposing waste. The company 3D-prints all their products using materials made up of more than 95% recycled waste, with the rest being additives such as colour. Long term, Special Studio aims to be able to produce its own raw recycled 3D printer materials in New Zealand, and print larger items such as houses and storage units.
3. Foodini: The printer for unique culinary creations
Barcelona-based Natural Machines is behind innovative uses of 3D printing such as the Foodini food printing machine. This small unit takes real food, pushes it through a 3D printer and creates extraordinary culinary creations. The Foodini printer has a wide range of applications, from decorating cakes to being used by chefs to make high-end – and even personalised – culinary creations. Natural Machines is also working on a project to produce seafood-based printed foods to promote sustainability.
4. Fiilo: Minimalist, eco-friendly 3D printed items for the home
US company Fiilo manufactures minimalist homewares such as planters to order – and can even produce customised goods according to customers’ specs. Fiilo’s 3D printing is innovative because it uses a biodegradable thermoplastic as its raw material. This is made from renewable resources such as cornstarch, which minimises its environmental footprint.
5. MIT’s Mediated Matter Group: 3D printing between nature and design
While not a business, MIT’s The Mediated Matter Group, headed by Neri Oxman, has made important innovations in the 3D printing space by exploring the intersection between nature and computerised design. Oxman and her group have branched out into new territory by using new 3D printing materials, such as glass and chitin (a material made from crushed shrimp cells). A famous example of the group’s work is the Rottlace project, where they created multi-material masks for singer Björk that replicate the textures of the human body through 3D printing.
6. Ringbrothers: A new way to build custom-designed cars
US-based Ringbrothers is leading the way in custom-designed cars, using 3D printing to ensure their car parts are precise and stylish. The company was founded by two brothers and is known for creating stunning original car designs out of its workshop in Wisconsin.
7. Toybox: Make 3D printed toys at home to your own designs
Toybox manufactures a reasonably priced and sized 3D printer for kids – and adults – to create their own 3D toys from an extensive inhouse catalogue or from their own designs. The California-based company uses PLA rolls for its printing material, as it is compostable and non-toxic.
8. Nike: Innovations in 3D printing for performance footwear
Nike has as a history of experimenting with 3D printing to prototype and produce footwear for years, starting with its cleat plates for football boots. In 2018, Nike produced its first 3D-printed footwear textile, the Nike Flyprint. Nike notes that 3D prototyping is much more efficient than traditional methods – it’s 16 times quicker than any method they’ve used previously.
9. FAST: Artificial bone scaffolds for tissue regeneration
Researchers around the globe have been exploring the use of additive manufacturing for tissue regeneration in the human body, including the EU-funded project FAST. The project aims to provide a technique for producing artificial scaffolds to treat bone defects in the body. Using 3D printing not only allows for customisation of shape, but also changes to porosity and other variables such as chemistry to specifically treat each patient’s clinical condition. The technology is still in development, and will have to undergo trials and regulatory approval before becoming widely available.
10. Redefine Meat: Vegan products that replicate the muscle structure of traditional meat
Israel-based company Redefine Meat produces plant-based 3D-printed ‘meat’, announcing in 2021 that it would be selling its products to high-end European restaurants. Rather than solely producing minced products, its New Meat range includes whole cuts and products like sausages and kebabs, making it different from other alternative meats on the market. By using 3D printing, the company is able to replicate the muscle structure of cuts of meat, despite being made of vegan ingredients like pea protein and chickpeas.
11. Continuum Clothing: The world’s first 3D-printed bikini
Continuum fashion demonstrates that a range of apparel can be created using 3D printing technology, including their world-first 3D-printed bikini. One of the core benefits of using 3D printing for this is that it fits the user perfectly. Continuum has also produced a dress and shoes using 3D printing technology.
What industries use 3D printing?
As 3D printing has become more accessible, a wider range of industries have begun to use it.
3D Printing in the health sector
3D printing has become a major player in the healthcare sector. Perhaps the most ambitious aim of the industry is to be able to recreate a living organ through 3D printing – however, this technology is still in its early stages.
Meanwhile there are many more ways 3D printing is being used in healthcare – of particular note is its ability to create replicas of human tissue or cells which can then be used for testing medicines or medical equipment.
3D printing uses in education
3D printing has also become a valuable tool in education. Educators in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are now teaching students about 3D printing and its possibilities. 3D printing is also being used as a teaching tool, providing replicas to support scientific learning, helping students to understand spatial concepts, and supporting creativity and ideation.
How the robotics industry uses 3D printing
Robotics is a booming field and 3D printing is a key technology for this sector. The sector is innovating in numerous ways, with examples like the ‘LittleBot’ – the do-it-yourself robot that can be printed at home with a 3D printer. At the other end of the scale, 3D printing is used to produce parts of highly sophisticated robots like the legs of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid robots.
How is 3D printing used in the healthcare sector?
3D printing is having a huge impact on the healthcare sector, with one of the most ambitious aims being to create 3D-printed living organs for transplants by laying living cells on top of each other to replicate human tissue. This research remains in an exploratory stage, with the ability to bring 3D organ transplants into the mainstream still some time away.
Currently 3D printers are widely used to create replica organs for medical research and development. This allows surgeons to practise complicated operations in advance, which can mean better outcomes for patients.
Some examples of other current applications of 3D printing in the medical sector are:
- Dental and bone implants
- Designing and producing surgical tools for specific needs
- Insoles and orthotics
How do businesses use 3D printing for prototyping?
Prototyping is a core use for 3D printing technology, since it provides a way to make prototypes much more quickly than using traditional methods.
For SMEs looking to expand product lines or explore new ones, 3D prototyping can be immensely valuable as it allows the ability to explore different designs quickly and at a relatively low cost. SMEs can avoid the need to invest in the technology and software themselves by working with a 3D printing services provider.
What are the most common types of 3D printing?
The most common types of 3D printing are currently:
- Stereolithography (SLA): The SLA process uses a pre-programmed, powerful laser on resin, layer-by-layer, which then hardens to create the 3D product.
- PolyJet: Polyjet 3D printing works by ‘jetting’ tiny drops of photopolymer droplets into a mould, then hardening them with ultraviolet light. It’s a popular way to produce 3D products due to its speed and accuracy.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): 3D printing using Selective Laser Sintering works by using a strong laser to ‘sinter’ polymer powder into a model created by 3D software. It tends to be a popular choice as it’s relatively cheap and can create products quickly.
What materials are most commonly used in 3D printing?
Plastics and metals are the two most common materials used for 3D printing, but generally a composite blend of materials is needed to meet the pressures inherent in 3D printing.
The plastics most commonly used are thermoplastics, which are ideal for 3D printing since they can go through cycles of being melted and hardened. Another benefit of this material is that the process is reversible – if there are flaws in the product that need to be resolved, thermoplastics can be melted again and remoulded. Another type of plastic used is thermosets, a material different from thermoplastics in that it remains in the final state once set – in other words, it can’t be recycled and is unable to go through multiple rounds of melting and hardening.
Metals are also commonly used in 3D printing. The most commonly used are:
- Stainless steel: because it’s strong and resists corrosion
- Aluminium: because it’s strong, durable and light
- Titanium: which is hard-wearing and corrosive-resistant
What are the limitations of 3D printing?
While 3D printing has notable advantages, there are also limitations. They include:
- Materials: 3D printing can be done with a limited number of materials, due to the need to temperature control the product when it is being processed. 3D printing is currently done largely with metals and plastics that are able to withstand the printing process. This creates a certain homogeneous ‘look’ for 3D printed materials and limits how it can be used for bespoke products.
- Structure: 3D printers create parts by layering materials on top of each other to create the final 3D structure. Often the size of these parts is restricted, meaning bigger parts may need to be added later. This can add time and labour t, potentially making it less efficient than creating the product in a more traditional way. 3D printing also can require post-printing treatment, as it can cause issues like rough edges that need to be resolved before the product is sold or used.
- Design issues: Effective 3D printing relies on computer-generated design (CAD), which works for that particular manufacturing style. Generating a good design can be tricky and needs to take into account the capabilities of the 3D printer being used. If there is a mismatch between design and printer, the end product can be flawed. Issues can often be fixed post-printing, but this adds cost and labour to the overall process.
- Capacity: 3D printers are limited in their capacity to produce goods, and are currently more suitable for small to medium production lines. While the capacity to produce more will undoubtedly grow over time, 3D printing is not yet at a point where it can replace mass manufacturing. As such, its usage should currently only be considered at the lower end of production demands.
Is 3D printing accessible for SMEs?
In many ways, 3D printing is better suited to SMEs than to larger production companies. This is because smaller manufacturing runs are well suited to this method and it allows for design of new products and refining of existing ones – as well as reduced storage costs. It is particularly useful as a replacement for injection moulding.
With technology and machinery advancing – and costs reducing – 3D printing is becoming increasingly accessible for small- and medium-sized businesses. While 3D printing was once limited to high-tech industries, it’s now widely available for those businesses who want to invest in the tools and software.
Alternatively, SMEs can use an external 3D printing service provider for one-off or smaller jobs like product prototyping, which can help lower the cost and time to market.
Is 3D printing right for your business?
3D printing has numerous benefits, but it’s important to explore both its pros and cons and if it’s right for your business before investing in the technology.
Consider what your end goal is for investing in 3D printing, then consider the costs against the benefits. The machinery is still relatively expensive, and 3D printing can only operate with a limited number of materials. It is also a slow manufacturing method compared to more traditional production methods. As the tech evolves, this will change – the machines will get cheaper and the materials more generic.
An alternative is to look to use a 3D printing service provider and outsource your 3D printing – which is especially economical for smaller runs of more bespoke or even personalised goods, and prototyping.