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 scientists to precisely craft an implant to fit the constraints in the given subject’s body while also controlling the substance to make sure it is strong enough and capable of sustaining the function of the body part that it is replacing. CSIRO’s Lab 22 created the first 3D printed sternum and ribs to save a patient that had to have his sternum and part of his ribcage removed as a part of cancer treatment. Due to the unique needs and constraints of the situation, 3D printing provided an ideal solution.
3D x Dental: With 3D printing, there is no longer any need for dentists to keep and archive physical molds of his patients’ teeth or for patients to have to endure the uncomfortable process of having a mold made. With a 3D scan, records can be preserved digitally and the molding process becomes much less invasive for the patients. This allows dentists to create 3D print plaster models, orthodontic appliances, positioning trays, clear aligners, and retainers easily as needed to treat their patients.
3D x Pharmaceuticals: Pharmacies may soon be a thing of the past; within a few years, it may be possible to 3D print your own specialized pharmaceuticals from the comfort of your own home. The theory is that at-home users could buy the 3D printer hardware complete with a set of water bottle-sized reactors and purchase specialized chemical compound "ink" packs depending on the requirements of the print. The technology has already been demonstrated as viable; in August of 2015, Pennsylvania-based Aprecia Pharmaceuticals received FDA approval on their 3D printed drug “Spritam” (levetiracetam) used to treat epilepsy. The printed drug is not only approved for use in the same way as conventionally manufactured drugs but, due to the 3D printing process, is also able to dissolve much faster (as shown below).
3D printing’s medicinal value isn’t limited to humans though; it also has a wide range of applications in veterinary medicine. It has generated legs for dogs, feet for ducks, jaws for turtles, “horse-thotic” shoes for horses, and beaks for birds like toucans and even a bald eagle named Beauty.
In a particularly touching story, Beauty the bald eagle was severely injured after being shot in the face by a poacher at the age of six. The top half of her beak was destroyed and as a result, she was not able to feed or bathe herself. When found, Beauty was emaciated and would likely have died had it not been for the efforts of animal rescue workers that found her and
nursed her back to health. As a part of an initiative at the Birds of Prey Northwest ranch in Idaho, raptor specialist Jane Fink Cantwell and mechanical engineer Nate Calvin worked with a team of scientists, engineers, and even a dentist to design a nylon polymer beak that could be affixed to Beauty’s face. Using 3D printing technology, the team was able to print the beak design and affix it to Beauty, allowing her to feed and bathe herself and enjoy a life much more similar to the one she enjoyed before she encountered the poacher.