3D printing has taken the world by storm. From small trinkets, to gargantuan aviation equipment, to biological material including human skin and tissue; 3D printing’s near boundless realm of applications makes it an ideal solution for virtually any unique manufacturing endeavor. A process nearly 40 years in the making, 3D printing, and additive manufacturing in general, has come a long way from its beginnings as simply a prototyping technique. We now have the ability to 3D print anything from baubles to buildings and beyond and this burgeoning industry’s potential is only increasing.
Uniquely Versatile Manufacturing Potential
A prime example of the manufacturing scope of 3D printing is the work being done by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oak Ridge has consistently been at the forefront of 3D printing possibilities, using the technology to create a Shelby Cobra sports car, a fully functional excavator, a house/car energy system, and an Army Jeep.
More recently however, they created the world’s largest 3D printed object when they produced a 3D printed version of a “trim-and-drill” tool used by Boeing to build the wings on its passenger aircraft. After 30 hours of printing, the behemoth tool was about the size of an SUV weighing in at 1,650 lbs and measuring 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide, and 1.5 feet tall. As impressive as Oak Ridge Labs' accomplishments are, the potential of 3D printing extends much further into a wide array of industries.
3D x Bioprinting: Regenerative medicine scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine created a 3D bioprinter (Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System), that can produce replacement tissues strong enough to endure transplantation. They were able to print ear, bone, and muscle structures that, when implanted into animals, matured into functional tissue and developed a system of blood vessels. Madrid’s Universidad Carlos III has even created a prototype for a 3D bioprinter that can print totally functional human skin for applications in trauma and burn treatment, cosmetic treatments, and research. As amazing as some of these applications are, the possibilities are really only just beginning; in the coming years, some medical professionals are eyeing the potential to be able to 3D print fully functional organs.
3D x Human Heart: In pursuit of that goal, Nicholas Cohrs, a graduate student at ETH Zurich, successfully created a soft artificial heart crafted entirely from silicone, scaled to the proportions of the human heart. This creation fundamentally works and pumps blood in the way that a natural heart does but has one critical drawback: it can only sustain its function for approximately 3,000 beats which would equate to about 30-45 minutes of lifetime. After that, the material can no longer withstand the strain and disintegrates. This outcome, however, was expected at the outset of the experiment. Cohrs explains: “This was simply a feasibility test. Our goal was not to present a heart ready for implantation, but to think about a new direction for the development of artificial hearts.” While the technology has yet to progress to the point that we could expect an actual transplantation to be successful over time, this work is nonetheless an exciting stepping stone towards that end.
3D x Prosthetics: With 3D printing, prostheses that once cost upwards of $100,000 using traditional methods can be available for as little as $1000 and under. Companies like the Openhandproject and e-Nable are even able to offer free prosthetics to those in need through donations and the savings that 3D printing technology affords them. Those savings don't imply an inferior product; due to the precision of 3D printing, doctors and helthcare professionals are able to generate prostheses that fit the exact dimensions of their patients to ensure maximum effectiveness.
3D x Implants: When it comes to designing implants to replace a functional part of the body, there are two primary considerations: 1) The implant must be accepted by the body and 2) it must reproduce the function of the original part. 3D printing helps achieve both goals by allowing doctors and