As technology advances, our real world sees gadgets that existed only in the realms of science fiction a decade or so ago becoming taken for granted as part of our everyday lives. 

The latest must-have addition to the techie addict’s collection of gadgetry is a 3D printer.  3D printing uses an adapted inkjet printing process to create a three dimensional object, layer by layer.  Each object begins life on a computer as a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file.  This file is created either by using a 3D modeling programme or from a scanned image.  The printer then reads the file and lays down thousands and thousands of horizontal slices with absolute precision until the object is formed.

3D printing has been used commercially for decades in the creation of prototypes used in traditional manufacturing but was until recently prohibitively expensive.  A rapid reduction in costs and the advance of computer technology has seen the emergence of many remarkable interpretations of 3D printing, some of which are truly mind-boggling and distinctly Star Trek!

And it’s not only the commercial world that’s maximizing this growth area; affordable 3D printers are now widely available for use in the home and in schools enabling everyone to get creative.  Read on to see how 3D printing is set the change the world as we know it; I’m off to boot up my computer and get busy designing some really funky 3D printed stocking fillers; just in time for Christmas!

3D Printer - Science Fact or Fiction?
Credit: TEGO

Medical applications of 3D printing

One area which is set to benefit massively from the adaptability of 3D printing technology is that of medicine.  Scientists at the USA’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine are currently developing an incredible new 3D printing technique for the treatment of burns.

The current standard treatment for burn injuries is to take a skin graft from another area on the patient’s body and use it to repair the damaged area of tissue.  This is painful and is not always a practical option if the victim’s burns are extensive.  A major complication for burns victims is the onset of infection which can be fatal.  If it were possible to quickly repair damaged tissue, the risk of invasion of the site by bacteria would be dramatically reduced and the prognosis would be much improved. 

Development of the pioneering technique has been challenging.  Burn injuries can penetrate more than one layer of skin to varying depths, damaging both the epidermis and dermis and the skin cells which form these layers are different.  Healthy skin cells from each layer are taken from the patient and then grown in a laboratory.  Once sufficient skin cells have been cultivated, they are placed into a sterilised, standard inkjet printer cartridge.  A specially adapted camera is then used to carry out a laser scan of the patient’s wound from which a 3D map is created.  A computer programme then tells the printer where, to what depth and which cells to begin printing.  The printer then lays down layer upon layer of new cells until the wound is filled in.  The cells then grow and new skin is formed.

It is hoped that one day skin graft banks can be set up which will work in the same way as blood banks and that access to this treatment will be available to everyone, military and civilian alike. 

Another remarkable adaptation of 3D print technology in medicine can be seen in the treatment of injuries sustained as a result of the use of biological and chemical weapons.  The US Government’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency has recently funded a research project to the tune of $24 million at Wake Forest University where scientists are working to develop an antidote for the effects of Sarin gas which was recently used to devastating effect against civilians in Syria.

Such testing is not straightforward.  Human volunteers cannot be used and testing on animal subjects does not generally yield accurate data.  Enter “Body on a Chip”.  This remarkable piece of research and development work involves taking a hydrogel-based scaffold and using a 3D printer to print human tissue cells onto it.  The printed cells are then planted onto a small, two inch chip.  The chop is introduced to a blood product substitute similar to that used in trauma surgery.  The end result is a tiny simulated organ; a liver, lung, heart or even blood vessel which would behave in exactly the same way as the full sized version would when exposed to chemical or biological agents. 

A similar 3D printing ideology has been used to create a living breast implant designed for use by recovering breast cancer patients who have undergone lumpectomy as part of their treatment.  In this case, the 3D printer uses living human cells which are printed onto a special gel.  Layer by layer a shape of clear, gelatinous tissue is formed and this will go on to become a breast implant.  This technique is still a long way from becoming available to sufferers and the company responsible for the work, TeVido, reckon there will be at least another seven years of development and around $40m of test work required before the product is even close to launch onto the open market. 

The technique of printing human body parts is not a new one.  Cornell University have already successfully bioprinted a prosthetic human ear and Organovo of San Diego are conducting research into the bioprinting of liver tissue.  It is hoped that ultimately it will be possible to take an organ biopsy from a patient awaiting a transplant and to simply print a new organ for them.  Just imagine the implications of such technology if it were successful; millions of lives could be saved and those who could afford it would be able to just buy new organs to replace those which had worn out.  However, given the environmental challenges faced in our already overpopulated world, that might not be such a great idea. 

It is very early days in the sphere of bioprinting and money for the testing and development of such radical techniques is hard to come by with speculators and venture capitalists willing to invest in such sci-fi projects being rather thin on the ground.  As a consequence, it’s likely to be a good many decades, and billions of dollars, before organs-to-go are available.

3D printed skin graft for burn patient
Credit: Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine

3D printing in architecture, art and design

3D printing is also making itself known in the field of architecture and construction.  Printable medium have been developed in a variety of different materials including a wood-based substance, brick and metal composites.  The one factor that has thus far held back the printing of large structures is that really large scale printers are required.  This is not only very expensive but is a logistical nightmare.  In a recent experiment, designers used smaller desktop-style printers to produce small, precisely engineered componentry which was then used in the traditional architectural assemblage and construction process.  Architects envisage that in the future entire cities could be constructed using 3D printed components in a whole assortment of recycled materials.  Imagine the implications of such technology; no more stripping of natural resources, no more landfill sites and an end to housing shortages.

Fashion is another area to feel the influence of 3D print technology.  A major headache for designers is long lead times and large order sizes demanded by clothing manufacturers.  If designers could print their own orders; imagine the time and consequently the money that could be saved.

A further issue for designers is the inordinately long time it can take for prototypes or samples to be produced.  Scenting the emergence of a niche market, companies are already out there which are already kitted out with digital prototyping technology.  A sample can be ready in a few hours rather than several months and if any alterations or tweaks are required; these can be made at the touch of a button.

In anticipation of an upsurge in the growth of small designers working from home and marketing their products on-line, companies now offer training in the design and production of 3D printed jewellery and even footwear.  Environmentalists are also smiling; there is hardly any waste compared with traditional processes and even materials like leather can be grown in a lab.

3D Printed Eco-House
Credit: TEGO

3D printing into outer space

Not surprisingly, NASA is at the front of the line when it comes to developing 3D print capability.  A specially developed prototype 3D printer, developed for NASA by US company Made In Space, has recently undergone successful trials by astronauts working aboard a specially modified Boeing 727 aircraft in zero gravity conditions.  

The rationale behind the idea is to enable astronauts to replace damaged space craft parts as and when required using a modified 3D printer.  The theory itself is pretty straightforward as long as you have the requisite computer software and associated peripherals.  The main complication is zero gravity.  Anything that isn’t fastened down just floats away!  As if this wasn’t tricky enough, the mechanical components of the printer must be able to move in order to function but if a cog or wheel floats even a nanometre out of place, the printing process simply won’t work. 

Despite the challenges, the engineers at Made In Space are confident.  The finalised version of the space-ready printer is a little bigger than a shoebox and its glass panels allow astronauts to monitor functionality whilst the machine is operational.  Space crews will be able to print virtually anything they need from plastic containers to tools and even replacement pipework; in fact, 30% of replacement parts will be printable.  The space and weight saving implications of this are exciting and NASA hope that one day manned missions to Mars and beyond may even be possible.  Made In Space venture even further into the realms of science fiction fantasy suggesting that in the future, a scaled-up version of their 3D printer could be used to produce components for whole spaceships or even to build huge megastructures for colonists on distant planets. 

The finalised version of the 3D printer will be installed aboard the International Space Station next year.  

So, having equipped astronauts with the wherewithal to create replacement parts for the Space Station, what next?  How about a 3D printer that prints food

This is not quite as Star Trek as it sounds.  The Los Angeles based, Sugar Lab has already developed a 3D printer that prints sugar cake decorations.  NASA aims to take the technology one step further and provide astronauts with a 3D food printer.  If they are successful, the days of boring, freeze-dried nutrition for space crews will be a thing of the past.  The first item on the menu is probably going to be pizza.  Pizza is made up of multiple layers and this sits well with the basic principles of 3D printing process. 

So, how does it work in theory?  The nutrients, (carbs, protein etc) are held in powdered form in specially adapted printer cartridges.  When a cartridge is selected, the contents are blended with water and oil before being mixed and sprayed (like toner), layer by layer onto a heated plate.  Voila – a cooked pizza!  Texan company, Systems and Materials Research are currently working on this technology and a working example could be just around the corner; they’ve already successfully printed chocolate using an adapted 3D printer.  NASA is hopeful that replacing traditional astro-nosh with the 3D printed variety will enable missions to continue for much longer as the shelf life of ingredients will be increased by as much as 30 years.

Deep space colonies would have no need to cultivate land in an alien and most likely barren environment; they would merely print off whatever supplies they needed!

The military are also very interested in this development; transporting supplies to troops serving overseas is bulky and costly both to transport and store and huge savings could be made if food could be ‘printed’ on site as and when needed.

NASA are investing heavily into 3D print technology research and development
Credit: NASA

Home 3D printing

It’s not just the military, the government and massively funded corporate development that can benefit from 3D print technology.  Recently, a whole raft of home 3D printers and associated software aimed at the hobbyist has been launched.  You can design and print a vast array of objects from Star Wars figurines; jewellery, personalised mugs, key fobs, toys and even a 3D replica of yourself!

It’s brilliant fun and, with a little practice not that difficult to master.  Home 3D printers retail within the same price range as ordinary home-office inkjet machines and are around the same size.

Dangers and health risks

But before we all get swept away on the tidal wave of wonder and enthusiasm; we should perhaps question the safety implications of 3D print technology in our homes and schools. 

Illinois Institute of Technology and the National Institute of Applied Sciences in France both claim that their research highlights potential health problems for domestic, hobby users.  In short, they reckon that using a home 3D printer in a poorly ventilated area is as damaging for your health as smoking tobacco. 

The problem is caused by the thermal extrusion and deposition processes during printing when huge quantities of microscopic plastic particles, invisible to the naked eye, are emitted into the atmosphere.  The user then unwittingly inhales this material which can cause breathing problems.  Scientists are concerned that the tiny particles could migrate from the lungs into the bloodstream through gaseous exchange ultimately reaching the vital organs and even the bone marrow tissue.  Epidemiological studies indicate that high concentrations of these particles have already been linked to asthma, stroke and even cardio-respiratory fatalities.  When challenged, home 3D printer manufacturers are quick to point out that the instructions accompanying their machines clearly advise both home and commercial users to only operate the printers in a well-ventilated area and to use a fume hood.