We’re living in a sci-fi world. The future is no longer in the distance, but right here, right now. Think about it. We can make calls with our smartwatch, and speak to a machine that controls our homes. We can even print 3D objects. The concept of 3D printing may sound like a whole lot of fun, something for the kids to play with, but this revolutionary technology can and will change the world. It goes beyond printing toy cars and abstract sculptures. It has the ability to save lives.
For one, it has already been used to print body parts, revolutionising the science of transplants. Making transplants the traditional way is typically a tricky feat. Most of the time, you’ll need a living donor, and there aren’t a lot of participants in this arena who are willing to sacrifice a piece of their body for a total stranger. Donated organs aren’t always compatible to the patient’s body either, and may end up failing after the transplant has been made.
The most pressing issue is the lack of supply, while the demand for organs continue to skyrocket. According to the United Network of Organ Sharing, about 118,000 people in the United States required a transplant in 2017, and 64% of them are stuck on a waiting list. What’s worse, that number isn’t stagnant, with one person joining the queue every 10 minutes. Still, only half of them will get what they need. The rest will die waiting. Thanks to 3D printing, however, researchers have been able to create transplantable bioprinted tissue. How it works is that instead of ink, the printers will squirt out a combination of living cells and polymers to create various layers of cells that will fuse and grow into a functional tissue.
There’s a long way to go before the healthcare industry makes larger leaps with the technology, but a few scientists from ETH Zurich, a leading science and technology university in Switzerland, have successfully printed a silicone heart that works like an actual one. So far, however, it’s only been able to pump 3,000 beats for 30 minutes before running out of fuel.
Over in Canada, researchers from the University of Toronto have gone a step further and built a compact 3D printer (weighing less than 1kg) that produces thin layers of skin tissues, which can be used to graft deep wounds. While they’re working on customising the printed tissues to suit each specific patient, what’s more impressive is their success in developing a portable, handheld printer for this purpose, especially at a time when 3D printers are mostly massive, bulky and slow. Their device, on the other hand, is able to print a single strip in under two minutes.
A 3D printed prototype of a bionic glass eye also exists currently, although it’s not capable of being implanted into an actual eye just yet. The same goes for bionic ears. When it comes to animal testing, the future looks hopeful. Chinese biotech firm Sichuan Revotek, for instance, managed to implant 3D printed blood vessels into rhesus monkeys, whose genes bear a high similarity to that of human beings. This means it could change the way we prevent and treat patients with cardiovascular diseases.
San Diego-based research company Organovo also found that 3D printed human liver tissues work on mice, offering much hope to those battling chronic liver failure. This technology can also help women who have lost their fertility due to cancer, as discovered by a group of female researchers at Northwestern University, who pulled off a transplant of bioprosthetic ovaries (made of gelatin) into sterilised mice that led to successful births.
Beyond the world of medicine, 3D printers are also transforming humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Andrew Lamb’s Field Ready, a disaster relief non-profit, is an example of that. In 2005, Nepal was devastated by an earthquake, leaving in its wake a destroyed district hospital among others. Medical equipment had to be donated, and then connected to a power source located outside the building. Unfortunately, the connection broke and you couldn’t find a replacement unless you imported them from overseas—a shipment that would’ve been months too late.
This was where Field Ready stepped in, using an open-source database to create mock-ups and a 3D printer on-site to produce the necessary spare parts. All this takes mere minutes to accomplish, and at a relatively low cost as well. Whatever tools are needed immediately, these portable printers are able to produce them. Certain models are also driven by solar power, which makes them even more efficient.
On a larger scale, if you blow these machines up, they could be used to fight homelessness with 3D printed houses. According to construction company Icon (which has raised $9 million in seed funding so far), these estates (sized at around 600 to 800 sqft) could potentially be built in under 24 hours, for as affordable a sum as $4,000. For now, it’s theoretical, but as Icon has already unveiled a 350 sqft abode that took two days and $10,000 to build, there’s no doubt that the ultimate Holy Grail of 3D printed homes is a possibility. Once all the kinks have been worked out, we’d be looking at not just a miracle housing solution for homeless folks, but for the general public at large.
From eradicating homelessness, to providing emergency aid, to fixing the human body, the 3D printing technology could quite literally save the world. Even in an apocalyptic situation, it could save us. Here’s a case in point: Students from Amit Zoran‘s Design Hybrids Lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have managed to print edible tofu noodles (that happen to taste good as well) by filling the machine with an instant noodle paste. Sure, this sounds like all fun and games, but imagine getting a point where portable 3D printers have become popular and cheaply available. You could be anywhere in the world (a panic room, a cave, or on a mountain), and produce your own food without the use of fire or pans.
Considering the fact that Local Motors has developed a partially 3D printed, self-driving shuttle bus, named Olli, on top of every other insane, sci-fi-esque 3D printed creation that have been made real by a multitude of tech start-ups, we’re indubitably headed for a 3D printed future. Don’t chuckle at the possibility of printing a whole new world for ourselves because it could one day come to pass.