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22 December 2014

Adorable dogs (and Nasa) benefit from 3D printing’s continual improvements

The flexibility and speed of 3D printing makes pet prosthetics and digitally-downloaded space tools a reality.

By Ian Steadman

There’s no surprise that the below video of Derby – a cute, loveable border collie born with stunted front legs – has been going viral over the last few days. It’s not just that Derby is cute (and the internet loves cute), but because of the prosthetic paws he’s now wearing, thanks to a 3D printing company called 3D Systems.

Of course, prosthetics for animals aren’t a new concept, but 3D-printed prosthetics still have something of a novelty about them. And there’s a good reason to 3D-print artificial limbs: since every person or animal is unique in their need, it’s possible to create prosthetic limbs which are exactly the right shape on a computer, better than anything mass-produced. And, as 3D Systems have said, it’s possible to iterate new versions rapidly as and when needed, be it for replacements, or because they want Derby to get used to running with shorter legs before “being fitted with progressively longer legs until he reaches his optimal height”:

This is the beauty of 3D printing. It’s not a replacement for large-scale manufacturing, and never will be, but what it does give users is personality and customisation, of the kind we normally associate with handmade goods.

It also opens up a whole load of new distribution possibilities. Think of what iTunes has done for music, and now apply that to physical objects – anywhere you’ve got a printer and an internet connection, you can “download” the plans to print an object. And not just on Earth. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have successfully printed out a ratchet using a new 3D printer.

Normally, getting a spare part up to the ISS could take weeks or months – however long until another launch is scheduled. That’s not ideal if there’s an emergency, like a crucial part of the life support system breaking down, but this ratchet was apparently designed, tested, certified and printed within a week.

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When astronauts on Mars are eight months – at best – away from a resupply mission, the development of sophisticated 3D printing techniques will be a nice insurance policy against mechanical part failure.