Have you heard how amazing 3D printing is? It's a little hard to wrap your head around, at first. One might assume that 3D printing refers to printing images on three-dimensional objects instead of two-dimensional surfaces. In fact--and the reason scientists, designers and futurists are so excited about 3D printing--the new technology allows us to print actual objects. Until recently, 3D printers were slow, expensive and somewhat limited to replicating simple objects, but advances announced this week extend the possibilities of 3D printing well into the realm of science fiction.
The basics: 3D printing works by stacking differently shaped layers of matter on top of each other to create the desired object. (It's not wildly different than a robot building a brick house using a pre-programmed digital blue print.) The thinner the layers, the more complex the objects can be. Using high powered lasers, new advancements allow scientists to work on a molecular level, and the results are stunning.
News emerged Friday morning that German researchers had perfected a method for printing human blood vessels, a key advancement in the development of artificial tissue. Though scientists have engineered biological materials successfully in the past using 3D printing technology, the new technique allows for a level of microscopic detail and complexity that stands to change everything from medicine to manufacturing. Capillaries specifically will help improve the likelihood of transplant donors accepting new organs.
Over the past few years, scientists created a method for custom printing vital organs like kidneys and bladders. The technology has improved dramatically, and this year, scientists successfully printed a heart the size of a quarter that started beating a few minutes after being printed. "Instead of using ink in the inkjet cartridge, we use cells," Dr. Anthony Atala from Wake Forest explained to the CBC. "All the cells in your body are already pre-programmed. There's a genetic code within all your cells that drives them to do what they are supposed to do if you place them in the right environment."
This doesn't sound delicious at first, but if you just compare the process as a really really advanced sheet cake in your head, it sort of works. CNN's Laurie Segall describes on device at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan: "Users load up the printer's syringes with raw food -- anything with a liquid consistency, like soft chocolate, will work. The ingredient-filled syringes will then "print" icing on a cupcake. Or it'll print something more novel (i.e., terrifying) -- like domes of turkey on a cutting board.
Using 3D printing technology, Seth Hunter, a student at MIT, built a fully operational flute by printing the individual parts and sticking them together. It took about 15 hours for the digital printer to manufacture the pieces, and it actually sounds great.
A number of companies have been developing processes that use 3D printing techniques to manufacture textiles. The digital design essentially maps out how to weave the material together, much like a high-tech loom. "Instead of producing textiles by the meter, then cutting and sewing them into final products," explains designer Jiri Evenhuis. "This concept has the ability to make needle and thread obsolete."
A number of different furniture designers have explored the different possibilities of using 3D printers to make chairs, tables or pretty much anything to fill a home. Dror Benshetrit, however, created a line of printed furniture that you can fold flat. Moving it's a breeze.
The coolest thing about 3D printing might be its sustainability. Because the materials needed are programmed down to the exact measures, there's practically no waste. And we thought Henry Ford had a good idea.