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Printing for the Future

News & Features | December 9, 2013

On December 3rd, General Electric declared it was 3D printing day. They encouraged people to tweet at them using the hashtag #3DPrintMyGift for a chance to win a small 3D printed gift designed by a celebrity such as Al Roker. The promotion allowed the corporation to tout its designers and show off its future in the growing, highly-hyped field of 3D printing.

A 3D printer, a machine that often resembles a giant glue gun, creates solid objects by layering material (usually plastic) one layer at a time. The 3D printing processis a way of manufacturing products individually so that they can be made quickly and in a personalized fashion. The technology was created in the 1980s by American Chuck Hull, who founded 3D systems. Initially it was used by engineers to instantly create prototypes in-shop, speeding up the process and allowing them to keep their designs secret; today a professor at the University of California is working on printing and building an entire house. Engineers today are also looking to use the technology to build lighter plane and helicopter parts. The Center for Technology and Teacher Education asserts that in a few years every classroom in America could have a 3D printer. A paper recently published by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California predicts that 3D printing will be the next big boom in manufacturing. And on the consumer level, 3D printers are available at Staples or at other smaller companies today for about $2,000. It seems that 3D printing is creating a strong current in the wave of the future. But almost everyone involved in the industry seems focused on the distant future, rather than transforming that future into the present reality.

One of the most exciting fields in the world of 3D printing is bioprinting. Bioprinters print cells, usually in a liquid or gel, and craft organs. The hope is that someday doctors will be able to print out new hearts and lungs for those in need. But right now the biggest advancements are being made in cartilage. “Printing a whole heart or a whole bladder is glamorous and exciting. But cartilage might be the low-hanging fruit to get 3-D printing into the clinic,” explains Dr. Darryl D’Lima of the orthopedic research lab at the Scripps Clinic, who has been working on just that. D’Lima recently made bioartificial cartilage in cow tissue using a modified Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 from the 1990s. (The team initially started with a modern printer, but the resolution was too high and the nozzles too small for cells to fit through.) Cartilage is the biological materialto print because it doesn’t need the same nutrients to stay alive, and contains no blood vessels or nerves. Nevertheless, this does not make it an easy job—cartilage in the knees and hips has several complex layers that the team is still working on figuring out. Other companies such as Organovo have already been able to print small pieces of human liver tissue, and are working on the implications for amputees. The technology is far from complete, but doctors hope to someday be able to print custom organs and limbs directly onto patients.

3D printing could also be the answer to issues of hunger. The Systems & Materials Research Corporation recently received a $125,000 grant from NASA to create a prototype of a 3D food printer.  The head of the corporation, Anjan Contractor, has come up with the idea for a printer that would combine nonperishable food powders (one for sugars, protein, carbohydrates, etc.) with water and print meals. This printer would be ideal in terms of space, as the powders can last for years—or as long as a mission to Mars. Contractor hopes that eventually the printers could help aid in the fight against hunger—there would be zero food waste, and the sources of sugar or protein could come from non-traditional sources such as kelp or insects. Printing our food may be a quick way to preserve resources and minimize waste. But once again, the technology is a long way from being actualized.

Today 3D printing is most prevalent merely as a hobby. There are various websites that allow people to send in their own designs and custom print jewelry, phone cases and desk toys. The technology has become invaluable to car buffs or photographers who can custom create missing parts at a fraction of the cost. People have even begun creating adapters for train sets, Legos, and camera parts that allow them to fit pieces of technology together that were never intended to work in tandem. Shapeways is one such website. Their home page offers a set of dice that look like they have been crafted out of thorns, a piece of plastic that you can clip onto a cup to turn it into a vase, and an intricate snowflake ornament. Greg Shutack recently worked at Shapeways overseeing orders, and before that he was the assistant to the CEO at Makerbot, a startup that sells 3D printing machines. He explained that working in the 3D printing business now is working on the cutting edge of technology.

This past spring, a general call of alarm sounded throughout the media, as plans for a 3D printed gun landed online; Shapeways was in the midst of the controversy. A law student at the University of Texas, Cody Wilson, announced that he planned to upload the blueprints for what he named the “Liberator” online so that anyone with access to a 3D printer could print and construct their own firearm. A metal firing pin and household nail are both needed for the gun to work. In order for the gun to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act, and be recognizable to metal detectors, however, it needs at least a six-ounce piece of steel.

The “Liberator” opens yet another avenue for people to illegally own and carry firearms, and critics maintain the obvious worry that having open-source instructions will lead to dangerous levels of proliferation. People have been creating home-made firearms for years with household materials from their local hardware store, but the “Liberator” would allow anyone with access to a computer to push a button and instantly have access to a functional firearm. Shutack explains that the company caught a few gun designs, or gun pieces before they went to print. He feels some people were simply trying to prove they could 3D print a gun rather than actually use it.

We spoke to Shutack concerning what his predictions were for the future of 3D printing. He explained that in his experience people were happy to throw money at 3D printing despite the fact that the technology is still fairly crude. “It’s really popped in the past couple of years, but these companies like 3D systems have been around for the past 20 years,” reflected Shutack. “I think the reason the technology is still on the cusp is that the only people that can make the use of the technology now are architects and designers—people that know how to make 3D models. The other thing, too, is that the final product isn’t that spectacular yet. Some models are really detailed and really beautiful. When you put those models in front of a panel, that doesn’t really wow the crowd, because jewelry has been handmade for years. The change is going to be when it becomes a consumer object—either the machine or product.” Shutack cited startups such as Formlabs (founded here in Boston) and Makerbot, both of which sell the actual printers, and Autodesk (which vends the design technology) as possible avenues to bring 3D printing to the general public.

But until schools can have their own printers (a dream of the Makerbot founders), doctors can print new organs, or 3D printers can help feed those in need, the technology is likely to remain in a nascent stage. Nevertheless, while the technology may be 20 years old, it seems that 3D printing is doomed to be called “the next big thing” until it can be actualized in the present.