The next new technology: 3D printing

By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

Gutenberg opened a Pandora’s box of opportunity when he invented the printing press, but he could never have foreseen what it would all come to six centuries later. Not only did his new machine sow the seeds of universal knowledge by bringing the printed word to the masses, today’s version of printing is opening up an entirely new universe of product and possibility.

While we are still a long way from sending a printed version of ourselves to a different location, 3D printers are being used to manufacture skin to ease the suffering of burn patients. While live animal testing will begin later this year, the technology, using live tissue cells from rats, is working and its application on humans is only a matter of time, according to Lian Leng, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, who is working on a prototype machine now.

Printed with precision

Live tissue printing machines are being used to create veins and blood vessel networks and other body parts in a way that is precisely dictated by the patient. Imagine a 3D printed heart made from your own tissues. This would resolve the complex issue of organ rejection. Personal hip replacement where the ball is permanently inside the socket is another use.

Where bio-printing is making the most impact right now is on kidneys. There is a tremendous shortage of these organs from donors so the art of printing kidneys from models scanned directly from the recipient patient is getting a lot of support. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina has been printing kidneys for some time now. They have also printed bladders and other human organs. To see this for yourself, go to http://www.ted.com/talks/anthony_atala_printing_a_human_kidney.html.

But medicine is not the only field where 3D printing is making a splash. It has long been used in architectural and other design, such as for jewelry and now even clothing. Number 10 Architectural Group in Winnipeg uses 3D printing to make prototype models of its architectural designs.

It doesn’t stop there.

A PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, recently invested $350,000 in a small U.S. start-up company, Modern Meadow, which believes it can revolutionize the meat industry by printing artificial raw meat. Bio-printed chocolates are already on the market.

In the aerospace industry, Airbus has a goal of making its aircraft from the ground up using 3D printing technology. Together with a South African partner, Aerosud, and another American company, CSIR, they are collaboratively exploring “the application of titanium powder-based additive layer manufacturing (3D printing) for constructing large-scale complex components.” Recently, a Chinese manufacturer, part of the North Western Polytechnical University, has created a 3D printed titanium wing spar that is light-weight but strong. The part will be assembled in a Comac C191 passenger plane to go into service in 2016.

The principle of 3D printing has been around for at least a decade. It is based on the same principles as ink jet printing, where a printer nozzle sprays material in thin layers to build the product, on information based on scanners and computer imaging from a three dimensional model or from design data. In bio-printing, live cells and stem cells are fused onto a predetermined design or scaffold and then naturally fused into the living organ.

This is not just the stuff of science fiction. You can have your own 3D printer for as little as $1,399 for home use or a more elaborate setup for about $3,000 in which to make professional or other parts. The Cube 3D printer is one model and it offers the ability to work with multi-coloured plastics as the building material.

How will this change our world and the way we think about careers of the future? Start thinking about it now, because the technology is here and it will revolutionize our world.

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