10 Amazing Things 3-D Printers Can (or Could) Make

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When 3-D enabler Shapeways debuted its first factory in New York last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut the ribbon with a pair of scissors freshly printed on a 3-D printer (shown in this instagram photo posted by the mayor's office).

It's truly amazing to peek into the future -- and the present -- of the printing industry. Already, consumers can design objects using 3-D software and then upload the files at Web sites like Shapeways, Ponoko and Cubify. The sites then print out designs and ship them to you. Or you can just go buy a sub-$2,000 3-D printer yourself and watch the magic as a machine melts the plastic "ink" and creates the object layer by layer.

And while you're getting used to that idea, there are already a number of 3-D printing prototypes and realities that were unfathomable just a few years ago. Here's a look at some of the amazing objects that can be printed with a 3-D printer.

Tissue: No, not the kind you blow your nose in but human tissue that could save your life. San Diego's Organovo ( ONVO) is making news with its NovoGen MMX Bioprinter, shown at www.organovo.com, a special 3-D printer that prints functional, living human tissue layer by layer. It uses a person's own cells to produce veins or a heart patches so there is less chance of rejection.

>>Also see: Investing in 3-D Printing
NovoGen MMX Bioprinter

For now, the printers are being used by the company and researchers to print tissue. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal speculated that this will lead to producing personalized body parts and implants on demand.

Drugs: Researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, used digital blueprints and a $2,000 3-D printer to print out drugs. The printer printed the lab equipment, which then "squirts the ingredients into the right places to make the desired compounds," according to an article in New Scientist. Of course, you'll need access to the right ingredients, but lead chemist Lee Cronin suggested on The Cronin Group Web site that consumers could eventually use the technology to make their own headache medicines.

Furniture: The massive KamerMaker is a movable building with a built-in 3-D printer used to print very large objects of up to 2-meters long by 2-meters wide by 3.5 meters high. At this stage, KamerMaker is an experiment, but backers at DUS, a Dutch architecture firm, says it can produce plastic furniture, temporary shelter and other on-demand architecture. If you happen to be in Amsterdam, KamerMaker invites you to stop by and take a look at the KamerMaker in action.

Cars: Printing cars is far from mainstream, but the first car, the Urbee, shown at www.urbee.net, rolled off the 3-D printer line two years ago (its exterior panels were made on a 3-D printer from Stratasys ( SSYS)).
The Urbee

It worked! Urbee, designed by Canadian firm Kor Ecologic, has a one-cylinder engine and can zoom to 70 mph. The three-wheeled vehicle carries only two people, and drivers would definitely attract stares for its futuristic and aerodynamic design. But Urbee won't be hitting dealerships anytime soon. Funding hasn't materialized, according to Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine.

Airplanes: Airplanes are even further behind 3-D-printed cars on the road to commercial viability. But the niche is taking off. Students at the University of Virginia just built and tested an unmanned airplane that was printed on a 3-D printer. As part of a summer internship with the MITRE Corp., Steven Easter and Jonathan Turman built an unmanned plane with a 6.5-foot wingspan, made from parts printed on a 3-D printer. Hitting 45 mph, the plane made four successful test flights last month, according to the University of Virginia Web site.

Bicycles: A working, 3-D-printed bicycle was printed and tested last year by The EADS Group in Europe. Parts were printed on the machine and then assembled. A bit wobbly, yes, but the Airbike did the job. Today, bike manufacturers like Trek and Giant use 3-D printers during the design process for prototypes, according to BikeRadar.com. That could change once 3-D printers are large enough to produce an entire bike frame.

Prosthetic Limb Cover: Bespoke Innovations uses 3-D printing to make "fairings," which are anatomically shaped covers for prosthetic limbs that can be decorated with different colors and graphics -- even tattoos. Co-founded by Scott Summit, an industrial designer, and Kenneth Trauner, an orthopedic surgeon, Bespoke uses digital photos of a customer's existing limb to create an anatomically unique cover for the artificial limb. The fairings can be printed within an hour. Bespoke was acquired by 3D Systems ( DDD) in May 2012.

Acoustic Guitar: Scott Summit, the same guy who created the prosthetic limb covers, is obviously into 3-D design. His latest pet project started on vacation and resulted in a working 3-D-printed acoustic guitar that actually sounded "rich and full," Summit told Businessweek. You can make your own 3-D-printed electric guitar at Cubify.

Guns: According to New Scientist, the first working 3-D-printed gun was printed over the summer by a member of the AR15.com gun-enthusiast forum named HaveBlue. Actually, HaveBlue printed out parts of a gun, called the lower receiver, and combined them with parts of an ordinary pistol.

House: Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor at USC's engineering school, wants to build a 3-D printer so large, it'll spit out concrete to create a full-sized house quickly and affordably. His company Contour Crafting has been talking up the idea for nearly a decade, but its viability is still far in the future. Although Khoshnevis gave a TED talk (available on YouTube) on 3-D-printed buildings earlier this year, the closest we've gotten to seeing this in action is an animated cartoon on the company's site.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at news@tamara.net and follow her on Twitter @gadgetress.
Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.