3D printer MakerBot Replicator 2 at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover. Photo: Reuters

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is where a 3D object is printed from a digital model. The 3D printer extrudes materials out of a nozzle, building objects layer by layer according to the instructions from the digital file.

3D printing has been used to make manufacturing prototypes for decades, but the technology has only recently become available for consumers to use themselves. The technology still has its limitations but it’s only a matter of time until this technology advances and dominates our manufacturing systems. 3D printing can also be a powerful tool for designers, who can create prototypes and mockups to pitch ideas to clients.

We’ve rounded up 12 amazing 3D printed objects that show just how powerful this technology can be:

1. Food


These printed snacks are made of ground-up meal worms, yum!

These “Meal Cubes” were printed on a 3D printer that combines powdered proteins, carbohydrates and sugars to create edible food products. The printer is being developed by Systems & Materials Research Corp to address world hunger and improve our unsustainable food systems by using this more efficient and economical way of producing food. Their argument is if food is made from nutritionally balanced powders, then we could get the same nutrients from a wider range of sources, such as ground-up insects, algae or grass. The printer can also be programmed to print personalized meals depending on the exact nutrients that a particular person needs.

2. Chocolate!


The most important utilization of this technology.

Now this is something I would invest in. This 3D chocolate printer heats up the chocolate in the cartridge and squirts out layer after layer of chocolate after you upload your own design file to the machine! The Choc Creator is the first commercial chocolate printer and was invented by a team of researchers at the University of Exeter. This miracle machine from Choc Edge retails for a mere $4,384.56!

3. Prosthetic jaw bone



3D printing is going to be huge in the medical field.

This custom prosthetic was printed from titanium powder with a lightweight porous structure, like real bones. The patient who needed it was able to talk normally with this new jaw minutes after waking up from surgery. 3D printing is going to be huge in the medical field, where individualized parts can be printed based on scans of patients’ bodies.

4. Guns


This plastic gun has been named the “Liberator” by its creator.

This is the world’s first working 3D printed gun. It’s made almost entirely of plastic and has successfully fired a .380 caliber bullet. It was developed by Cody Wilson, a law school student who runs the organization Defence Distributed, that aims to make gun blueprints available online for anyone to download and print. The U.S. State Department has already forced Defense Distributed to take down the blueprints from Defcad, however allegedly more than 100,000 of the plans were downloaded before the crackdown. The good news is real guns are still cheaper and easier to obtain than printed guns. However as the costs of 3D printing go down, the more worried we should be.

5. Your face


Now you can actually print the face only a mother could love and give her the perfect present!

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg took samples of people’s DNA from gum, hair and cigarette butts left in public places, and created 3D portraits based on their genetic makeup. The printed result isn’t an exact copy of the real person’s face, but it’s a pretty cool (and creepy) way of combining art and science.

6. Clothing


This drafty-looking dress is made of a lightweight, flexible material.

Modeled by Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, this nylon dress was printed by Shapeways and designed on an iPad by Michael Schmidt and Frances Bitoni. It’s made up of thousands of components that were printed to fit her body exactly, and based on the Fibonacci sequences of numbers.

7. Ceramics


Try throwing this one on a pottery wheel!

This delicate vase is available for purchase on Shapeways and was designed by user virtox. It’s produced with a fine ceramic powder, fused together with a binding agent, fired and finished with a glaze. It’s food-safe and available in several finishes including Avocado Green Glossy and Eggshell Blue Glossy!

8. Your unborn child


Can’t wait to meet your child? Print them out in utero!

A Japanese service called “Shape of an Angel” will print a 3D model of your unborn fetus, using a technology called BioTexture, which processes image data from MRI and CT scans for 3D modeling. Expectant mothers have been shelling out the cash for this hot new product, which starts at $1,275 per figure, and goes up depending if you want to get the result made into keychains or cellphone dongles. This consumer product may seem a little strange, however it’s potentially a very powerful tool for vision-impaired parents, and for doctors to study potential malformations in developing fetuses.

9. Custom iPhone cases


This is a great first project for designers who are starting to learn CAD.

This custom iPhone case design was inspired by Indian patterns such as Mandalas. It’s available for purchase on Shapeways.com and was designed by user Genghis. It’s printed in a strong and flexible plastic and starts at $18.22.

10. Metal jewelry


Forget metal-smithing! Now designers can simply print their bling.

This intricate bracelet is also available for sale at Shapeways, and designed by user nervoussystem. It can be printed in plastic and stainless steel, and is a top seller on Shapeways.

11. Complex art


Even Michelangelo couldn’t carve this out of a block of marble.

This incredibly detailed sculpture by artist Kevin Mack would be difficult and time-consuming to produce without 3D printing. According to Mack, “this sculpture represents a physical manifestation of the flow of consciousness in a transhuman entity.”

12. Your boss


For this 3D figurine, we chose to create Community Director Jason Aiken (in his fist tee).

This little guy look familiar? He bears a striking resemblance to our very own Community Director Jason Aiken, and he’s even wearing the exclusive 99designs fist T-shirt! We used an online application called MixeeMe to create this customized figurine. They partner with Shapeways, and their online customization app lets you pick and choose facial features, hair color and upload designs to print on their clothing.

Resources to get you started!

These amazing printed objects are redefining the manufacturing process, but many are made on industrial-grade printers that are not as accessible and affordable for the average consumer. For designers, 3D printing is better used as a tool than an end product. They’re great for making inexpensive prototypes of product designs to pitch to clients before they invest in expensive manufacturing processes and supplies.


From digital file to physical object. This model was created in the program MeshLab.

Clients are super responsive to seeing print designs like business cards photoshopped into mock-ups, the same thing is true for 3D printed prototypes. Some designers actually use 3D printed characters to pitch company mascot designs to clients by giving them a maquette they can hold in their hands.

If you’ve ever wanted to do product design but were limited by your lack of manufacturing knowledge, here’s your chance to start making your ideas reality! The technology is only going to advance, so why not start learning the basics now? Here’s a few resources to get started:


SketchUp is very user friendly and it can create 3D printer-ready .STL files.

Google SketchUp: This free CAD program is extremely basic, but it is very easy to learn for beginners. If you’re serious about making professional, finished products with this technology, you’ll want to learn more advanced programs like SolidWorks and Rhino 3D, both of which are a little pricey but have a pretty sweet trial programs you can download from their websites.

Ideally, you should go to your local 3D printer shop to see your designs getting printed and learn firsthand how to design according to the specifications of the printer. But if that’s not the case, you’ve got a couple of options: buy a consumer 3D printer or send your design files to a 3D printing company to print.


The Cube®‘s dimensions are 10 x 10 x 13 inches, and can fit comfortably on the average desk!

One of the most affordable and consumer-friendly 3D printers out there is the Cube® made by Cubify®, starting at $1,299.


Join an online community of 3D printing enthusiasts at Shapeways.com.

Shapeways.com is a seriously cool, 3D printing marketplace where users can make, buy and sell their own 3D printed products. They also have a bunch of easy-to-use online customization apps for beginners to start playing with. Note to self: start designing my own smart phone case so I can print it out!

Additive manufacturing is more efficient and less wasteful than traditional subtractive manufacturing, and it’s only going to get cheaper. The ultimate goal of 3D printing would be to manufacture all consumer products in the location of their purchase, on demand and on the spot, which would eliminate shipping costs and wasting unsold products. In the future, the possibilities for 3D printing will be limitless.

What object would you print in 3D?

Header image: fdecomite (via Flickr)