"Hey could you run to the store? I need a new ear, and my printer is out of BioInk."
Recent patent expirations in the area of three dimensional (3D) printing technology have opened the flood gates of inexpensive 3D printers and an explosion of new applications. For those who are not familiar with 3D printing, this technology is amazing! Almost everyone has experience with 2D printers that print text or photographs on paper. Inside the printer, the printer head with its ink cartridge moves rapidly back and forth across the paper, precisely depositing little jets of ink that form letters or images progressing down the page. In a way, 3D printers do the same thing but with one difference. The 3D printer makes three dimensional objects by adding smaller, thinner layers of material, such as plastic or metal, over each other, moving back and forth to form a complete layer of material, However, instead of stopping after one layer like a 2D printer, the printer head lifts up, goes back to the beginning and lays down another thin layer of material on top of the first layer.
In fact, many, many things can be manufactured with 3D printing, from little plastic statues to metal machine parts. However, the true power of 3D printing comes from the ability of a 3D printer to apply more than one kind of material to each layer. Laying down different materials lets a 3D printer produce functional, preassembled components like gears or dead bolt locks or chains. Envision that the printer is making a chain out of plastic. The printer lays down plastic where the links of the chain are, and in the open space of each link the printer lays down a kind of wax in the open spaces. When the printing is done, there will be a block of wax and plastic. Applying a little bit of heat melts the wax away, leaving just the chain of connected links. There is no assembly required. In fact, the company American Pearl employs 3D printing to make and deliver custom jewelry such as engagement rings. They claim to allow their customers to design their rings online, including selecting the stones, and American Pearl will have the ring made and delivered in 3-4 days. The secret is that the computer will precisely calculate all the proportions and print the mold for the custom ring design. The ring is cast in the 3D printed mold and a master jeweler applies the stones.
3D printing is not just for small objects made of plastic. The heavy machinery giant Caterpillar Inc. has committed significant research and development resources in 3D printing with a long-term vision that replacement parts for their machinery will be printed in the field to repair their machinery as quickly and efficiently as possible. Metal printing involves using finely powdered metal such as steel, titanium or bronze. The computer controlled lasers precisely melt the metal layer after layer to produce industrial grade metal pieces that are in some cases stronger and lighter than possible by traditional metal manufacturing processes. If you would like to see the lasers in action, check out this video. A company called Local Motor, Inc in Cincinnati, Ohio recently printed an entire, drivable car in 44 hours using an industrial size 3D printer. The speed of taking the design in the computer to manufacturing a car traditionally takes years, but with computer design and 3D printing, Local Motor produced a drivable car in four months.
3D printing is not simply confined to metal and plastic manufacturing. Tremendous advances have been made in 3D printing in the biomedical field of research. The company Organovo, based in San Diego, CA, uses 3D printing technology to print living liver tissue. At this point having printed human liver tissue offers an unprecedented opportunity to develop safer and more individualized drugs without the dangers of clinical testing on people. Scientists can study the effects of a drug in the lab and have a much better idea of how the drug will work in humans without resorting to animal testing. The process takes tissue from a person’s liver, and scientists then make the liver cells multiply in the laboratory. The multiplied cells are mixed with nutrients to keep the cells alive and with other ingredients to help in the printing process. The printer cartridge is loaded with the living cells and printed to make liver tissue. Other companies such as 3D Bioprinting Solutions aim to develop a printed kidney by 2018. The South Korean company Rokit are developing the capability of printing Human skin. Also, BioBot currently offers a 3D tissue printer for $25,000 and cartridges containing living cells and nutrients for printing they call 'BioInk'.
The rapid expansion of 3D printing is impacting many aspects of the commercial, research and industrial sectors of our world. The process of layering substances from plastic to living cells stands to change manufacturing and medicine completely. Imagine if burn victims could have their very own skin printed in the laboratory. The skin would be their own without the scarring, significantly reducing their suffering. The world of manufacturing will see a massive change in how parts and even entire machines such as cars and tractors are manufactured. Perhaps the futurists are right and that we are entering a new machine age like we have never seen before.