Science

  • Issue 113 / September - October 2016



    Our 3D Printed Future: From Electronics to Living Organs

    Halil I. Demir

    The emergence of 3D printing promises to revolutionize how things are designed, produced, and distributed. And although these changes present real opportunities, they also pose some unexpected dangers 


    In their rooms, your twins are using a 3D printer to print their new transformer robot toy. Meanwhile, your daughter is ordering a dress online ‚Äď not the dress itself, but the new textile cartridges and 3D¬†¬† blueprint of the dress. It’s been nearly 5 years since you replaced most of your cooking utensils with a new iCOOK3D portable food printer, which comes with 3 months of food cartridge refills, available in thousands of different flavors. Your new neighbors are excited to be living in their 3D printed homes, although you are not as happy since they copied the design of your French Colonial house. On your holographic TV, which you purchased last week from the print shop in your neighborhood, you are watching news about police investigating a 3D-printed-organ black-market.


    All this may sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie; however, we have already taken major steps toward making this dream a reality.


    3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is the process of making three dimensional objects from a

    digital model using materials such as plastic or metal. While traditional manufacturing techniques (subtractive processes) rely on the removal of materials (e.g. by drilling, cutting, etc.), 3D printing is achieved using additive processes to create an object by laying down successive layers of material. It will reach the masses sooner than many thought, thanks to recent developments in manufacturing and low cost prototypes now available. 3D printing is expected to change nearly every thing [1] in our daily lives, from manufacturing and transportation, to shopping and consumption. Scholars have already started to discuss how these changes will affect our societies, health, and daily habits.


    Let’s start with manufacturing. 3D printing allows rapid and cheap prototyping, as well as the creation of highly customized products. While manufacturers have been using 3D printing to prototype their designs for years, expect to see 3D printing machines appearing in factories very soon. Some highly customized components are already produced more affordably on 3D printers as the capabilities of 3D printers have improved over the last 5 years. Factories are incorporating hybrid manufacturing processes by integrating 3D printing into the production line and supply chains.


    Assembly lines and supply chains for many products can be reduced with the help of 3D printing. Complex structures and designs can be printed in one process, eliminating the separate manufacturing processes, shipping, and assembly of thousands of small parts for products like cars. Products and spare parts can be manufactured on demand, eliminating the need to build-up inventory. Manufacturing facilities will be capable of printing a wide range of products without    retooling.


    Customization will become the norm in manufacturing. Products will be customized not just by allowing you to engrave your name on it, but by providing the option to change size, color, shape, and ergonomy. Nike plans to use 3D printing for manufacturing their final products. The Nike Vapor Laser Talon [2] is an ultra-lightweight football shoe (159 grams, including cleats), which was produced by using selective laser sintering. 3D printing will allow highly customized products like shoes that perfectly fit the 3D scanned structure of a customer’s feet.


    3D printing will improve the innovation cycle and streamline the path from design to final product. Rapid prototyping using 3D printers reduces the time needed to turn a design or concept into a final product by allowing designers to test many concepts easily while using limited resources. This will improve all steps of the manufacturing cycle ‚Äď from design to production, and modification to reproduction. It will also reduce the carbon footprint of a given product thanks to a more efficient use of raw materials, limiting the amount of energy used and reducing the need for shipping products around the globe.


    In the early stages of 3D printing, print shops will begin appearing in shopping malls, some of them offering online printing services. This will allow you to upload your design, select your material and production options, and order a print of your product to pick up from your local store ‚Äď or even have it directly shipped to your home. Retailers will be able to focus on selling designs with interactive web platforms that allow you to create a new design or customize selected designs.


    With more materials supported in high precision 3D printing (plastic, wood, ceramic, metal, etc.), repairs will be easier and more affordable than ever. Instead of ordering parts, replacing the equipment, or looking for a repair shop, you will be able to order parts  or designs online to print at your home. New 3D printing techniques [3] allow microscopic printing with nano-precision, and this is 100 times faster than traditional printing processes. Producing no scrap, 3D printing will also reduce material waste and energy usage. While you are already flying on planes with 3D-printed parts, which makes it lighter and more fuel efficient, NASA is already testing [4] 3D printers in space to build and repair space crafts and satellites.


    A new revolution will be started through the development of “printed” electronics. A group of researchers developed a material called carbomorph, which is a conductive, inexpensive, and printable plastic. It can be loaded into most 3D printers on the market. The carbomorph makes it possible to print 3D objects like game controllers, complete with electronic tracks, sensors, and touch-sensitive areas. We still need a bit more time before we can print a smartphone complete with its electronic components.


    3D printing will also transform education. Teachers will give 3D printing assignments in science and art classes to teach about complex geometrical shapes or help students better understand the structure of a molecule.


    Students can develop an idea, design it, and make it real with the help of 3D printing. A number of middle and high schools in the US are already equipped with 3D printers. Some courses provide materials for integrating 3D printing into classes. A 3D printing pen [5] allows students to print in the air, and combine the design and production processes into one step.



    While minimizing the use of harmful chemicals for production and making environmentally friendly product designs possible, the main benefit of 3D printing might be found in the health sector. 3D printed medical implants will improve the health of someone close to you by allowing better bone implants, prosthetic limbs, custom-fit medical devices, and personalized medicine. The ability to print soft-tissues, skin, arteries and veins is already under development.



    Researchers are working hard to eliminate the need for organ donations, as well as any issues with organ transplant rejections, while also improving laboratory drug tests ‚Äď all using 3D printable organs. The process is called biofabrication: printing organs on demand using living cells (bio-ink) instead of ink [6]. These printers use specialized valves to control the rate of cells released, and place them in a 3D structure. Stem cells, the building block of organs and tissues, are used as the bio-ink since they are “generic” cells that can become specific cells under the right conditions. These printers are able to print millions of cells per minute. In the not-so-far future, printed tissues and organs will be available in labs for research, but down the line, they will hopefully replace organ transplants.


    The use of 3D printing could significantly change how we do business and live our everyday lives. As in every other scientific development, 3D printing will bring along new problems and issues. Defense Distributed, an open source group working on designs of both guns and their accessories, is trying to make the blueprints of guns accessible to everyone to download and print using 3D printing technology. They successfully demonstrated printing and testing a 30-round AR-15 magazine recently. The success of 3D printing firearms and components causes significant concern for public safety.


    Another debate surrounding 3D printing is about copyrighting. Manufacturers and designers are concerned about ease of distribution and replication of their copyrighted designs and products via 3D printers. Even though there are methods to protect and limit the distribution of copyrighted content online, new 3D scanners allow people to digitize real objects, and make the replication process much easier. As the music and movie industry was affected by the distribution of digital content, the 3D printing of products will bring more intellectual property and copyright discussions to the table.


    Environmental, health, and safety issues are the major concerns around 3D printing. People will face health issues connected with using nanomaterials in the printing process, ethical issues around the possibility of printing living cells or organisms, and the social dangers presented by the ease of access to firearms and accessories. Despite these and other unforeseen problems, 3D printing can inspire innovation and provide significant improvements in medicine, science, technology, and education, just as computers and the internet brought us similar changes over the last 20 years. We need to continue supporting innovation while addressing the concerns that come with these changes.


    Acknowledgment: This article was produced in Mergeous [7], an online article and project  development service for authors and publishers dedicated to the advancement of technologies in the emerging realm of science and spiritual thought.


    References:


     


    [1] Manufacturing The Future: 10 Trends To Come In 3D Printing, CIO Network Insights and Ideas for Technology Leaders, December 7,   2012.

    [2] Nike Vapor Laser Talon, Nike Inc.,  2013.

    [3] 3D-printer with nano-precision, Florian Aigner, Phys.org, March 13,    2012.

    [4] NASA Turns to 3D Printing for Self-Building Spacecraft, Jeremy Hsu, Space.com, September 14, 2012

    [5] A 3D-printing pen, kurzweilai.net, February 25,   2013

    [6] Printing a human kidney, Anthony Atala, TED Conferences, March 2011.  [7] Mergeous, Online article and project development service,    mergeous.com


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