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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Transformative Technology of 3D and 4D Printing

I hadn’t done much research into 3D custom printing recently, so I thought I’d check out the current state of the technology. I was pleased to find that it is very much alive and thriving. I found three articles I’d like to share with you.

First of All, What Is 3D Printing?

An inkjet printer’s printheads move from side to side as the paper feeds through the machine producing a two dimensional copy of whatever is in your computer file. In much the same way a 3D printer has printheads that move not only from side to side but also up and down. Such printers use plastic resins (instead of ink) to build up layer upon layer of material to create three-dimensional products.

This approach, also known as additive manufacturing, is a step beyond traditional manufacturing, which involves either grinding down some material into a usable item (or part of an item) or injection molding an item, which involves making a hollow form into which plastic, molten metal, or some other substance is injected. When the mold form is removed, you have your item (or component part of an item).

Injection molding requires making molds, which is slow and expensive. In contrast, if you have a 3D printer and a computer file, you can easily and cheaply make one item (or parts for an item that you would then assemble).

The Articles on 3D Printing

I would like to preface this by saying that many of the articles I had been reading during my prior study of 3D custom printing had involved using additive manufacturing to print hamburger-like meat (which I thought was interesting, albeit very expensive) and handguns (which concerned me). However, I had also been pleased to read about attempts to 3D print replacement body parts (out of biological matter).

Interestingly enough, over the past few years I have also noticed computer vendors such as Micro Center selling these 3D printers for a reasonable price.

A Prosthesis for a Tortoise

The first article I read was entitled “Injured Tortoise Gets a Second Chance at Life Through 3D Printing.” It was written by Luke Dormehl and uploaded to on 8/22/16. The article references a veterinarian, Nicola Di Girolamo, who treated a tortoise that had lost a leg to a rodent attack (one leg had been so badly damaged by the rodent that it had required amputation).

The vet contracted with Roma Stampa, a 3D custom printing vendor, to produce a prosthesis for a tortoise. It was essentially a two-wheeled cart that could be attached to the tortoise’s shell using two neodymium magnets. What makes this different from other two-wheeled carts for animals is that it was produced precisely to the dimensions needed by the tortoise. In addition, because of the magnet attachments, the cart could be removed during the long annual hibernation period (up to six months) of the tortoise so it didn’t confine her.

So, you may ask, what makes this custom printing?

When you inkjet print a brochure, you are using a computer to digitally create a presentation of information and concepts. You are using printing ink and a horizontal and vertical matrix to create the reader’s internal “experience” and hopefully to empower the reader to think and act.

So when Roma Stampa produced the cart for the tortoise, it used an inkjettable material more substantial than commercial printing ink, a digital computer file, a 3D printer, and a three-axis matrix (length, width, and height) to create an object that empowered the tortoise to move and walk.

Creating 750 Human Hand Prostheses

The next article, “Volunteers Assemble 750 3D Printed Prosthetic Hands,” describes a 3D print run of all the component parts needed to assemble 750 human hands (22,000 pieces in all). The article was written by Beth Stackpole and published on on 8/25/16.

According to Stackpole’s article, “Autodesk has teamed up with the Enable Community Foundation (ECF) and Voodoo Manufacturing to conduct what they say is the world’s first global hand drive for 3D printed hands.” The goal of the initiative was “to serve children and underserved populations around the globe.”

The reason this is noteworthy is the cost and the turn-around time. It usually costs tens of thousands of dollars and weeks or months to make traditional prosthetic hands. In contrast, each of the hands made in this initiative cost only $50.00. All parts were produced in a month’s time by Voodoo Manufacturing and then assembled by 10,000 Autodesk employees around the world.

By using a 3D printing process (approximately 160 small Makerbot Replicator2 3D printers), Autodesk, ECF, and Voodoo Manufacturing have empowered 750 people around the world by giving them functioning hands. And like a digital inkjet press, this 3D printer was cost-effective and faster than traditional, non-digital options.

The Fourth Dimension of 3D Printing

If 3D printing involves length, width, and height, then 4D custom printing includes time (i.e., movement or change). In the realm of the fine arts, sculptor Alexander Calder invented “mobiles,” which included the usual three dimensions but also moved (whether they hung from the ceiling or stood on the floor). This distinguished them from other sculptures.

The third article I read addressed the theme of movement within 3D printed products. It was entitled, “Forget 3D Printing – Here’s 4D Printing.” The article was written by Lucas Mearian and published on 8/24/16 on (DigitalArts from IDG).

To quote from the article, “Researchers have demonstrated the ability to 3D print objects that can then change shape, even folding and unfolding, when heated through an electrical current or with ambient air temperature.”

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California printed 3D items using “smart ink” composed of soybean oil, polymers, and carbon nanofibres. According to the article, the scientists “programed” these “into a temporary shape at an engineered temperature that was determined by the chemical composition.”

If you find the article online, you can watch a video of two small boxes made from this material. When heated, one opens and one closes. (That is, the material has “memory.” These “shape memory polymers” (SMPs) change, or return to an original shape depending on the temperature.

The article, “Forget 3D Printing – Here’s 4D Printing,” quotes Jennifer Rodriguez, a post-doctoral researcher in LLNL’s Materials Engineering Division and the paper’s lead author, as saying “You take the part out of the oven before it’s done and set the permanent structure of the part by folding or twisting after an initial gelling of the polymer.”

The LLNL scientists foresee using this 3D printing technique in aerospace and medicine. For instance, a collapsed stent can be made to open up when heated, or a child’s splint can be made to change shape and lengthen as the child’s body grows.

The Take-Away

It makes sense for us to open our minds to new technologies, whether they involve ink digitally printed on paper from a computer file or polymer digitally printed in three dimensions. Like ink on paper, three-dimensional items produced digitally can empower people and transform lives.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Transformative Technology of 3D and 4D Printing”

  1. Such an informative blog. 3D printing is trending in a market this days.There are lots of benefits of 3D printing. 3D printing allows ideas to develop little faster. It also saves money a lot.

    • admin says:

      Thank you. I’m glad you like the blog. What intrigues me is that many kinds of manufacturing will become decentralized and democratized. Individuals will be able to make their own products and customize them as needed, or go to small manufacturers who can do this. Also, as you note, it will be much cheaper (and faster) to make a prototype and then change it any number of times until it’s exactly right.


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