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The Powers of 3D Printing

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People are talking a lot about 3D printing these days, even though it’s far from a new idea since the first 3D printing device was created in 1984. Though the concept isn’t new, the things we can do with 3D printing today are completely revolutionary and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

You may have seen one around at your local markets, printing jewellery and knick-knacks, which is pretty cool and interesting to watch, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what this technology is capable of.

What is 3D printing?

If you haven’t already seen one, a 3D printer prints objects out of a material (usually plastic) instead of ink, building up in layers until the object is complete. Its potential is close to limitless – it can create almost any object you can think of; all you need is a digital blueprint. What has held the technology back is patents and costs. As the technology has become more accessible and affordable, we’ve been able to delve deeper into some of the things it can do and the results are astounding. Here are just some of the ways 3D printing is changing the world.

Prosthetics

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Losing a limb can be a traumatic and challenging ordeal, even though in some cases amputation may be necessary to save a life. Prosthetics can improve an amputee’s quality of life and offer opportunities which were completely unfathomable decades ago, helping them live their life as much as an able bodied person. The main roadblock for patients when it comes to prosthetics is cost, especially for growing children, who need regular replacements as they get older.

Thanks to the low production costs involved with 3D printing, affordable prosthetic limbs are slowly becoming available to patients. The Open Hand Project by OpenBionics was started with the aim of making robotic prosthetic hands accessible and affordable using 3D printing technology. It’s an open-source project, meaning the designs and engineering are available for anyone to access or use. This means more people can get involved with and contribute to the project, and even print their own prosthetics at home.

A global community called e-Nable is helping match up people with 3D printers and the know-how to use them with people who need prosthetics, in a beautiful and generous movement to deliver 3D printed prosthetics to those in need. Between the years 2013 and 2015, e-Nable volunteers had donated approximately 1,500 prosthetic hands to people in over 40 countries for free. Though the printed prosthetics aren’t as sophisticated as the top market models, they’re cheap to produce (a hand costing around $50USD to make), and are providing options to those who cannot afford the high-cost models.

cute prosth

Bioprinting and Surgery

One hope for 3D Printing is that it will be able to print organs in a process called bioprinting. Bioprinters are based on the same concept as 3D printers, but they print biomaterial to build structures like tissues, blood vessels, and organs. A sample of a patient’s own cells are taken and cultivated to make “bio-ink”, which is then loaded into the printer (alternatively, stem cells may be used in some circumstances). The printers print scaffold-like structures, which cells can attach to and grow on, joining with other cells on the body in a similar way to how cells join together to heal a wound.

This technology could lead to massive strides in medicine; imagine a future where no one needs to wait for an organ donor, they can simply print out the organ they need, or skin could be printed for burn victims? Unfortunately this technology is still in the testing phase, but printed organs could be a reality in our lifetime.

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Bioprinting organs might still be a few years off, but 3D Printing is already assisting surgeons today. Medical scans can be turned into blueprints for 3D printing prior to an operation. This means surgeons can print replicas of a patient’s organs to assist with surgical pre-planning, leading to more precise treatment recommendations. Being able to see a 3D model of the affected organ before going into surgery can also reduce operating time, lower the risk of errors/complications and produce better outcomes. One little girl had a complex hole in her heart mended with a custom-made patch, thanks to the accurate 3D-printed replica heart the operating team constructed based upon her MRI and CT scans. It’s likely that 3D-printed models will become the standard procedure for many operations within the next decade.

Environment

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Not only is 3D printing more environmentally sustainable than many other methods of manufacture, it can also actively help the environment, perhaps even saving whole ecosystems. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that the world faces today, and it’s already taking its toll on our oceans.

Coral reefs are some of the most important ecosystems on the planet: they protect coastlines from damaging wave action, provide habitat for marine life, contribute to the economy through ecotourism, provide us with natural resources which produce food and medicine – and they are dying off at an alarming rate due to changes in the climate. As the water temperature rises, corals get stressed and undergo a process called coral bleaching, where the algae (zooxanthellae) which live inside the coral’s tissue and give it colour leave the coral, leaving it white. The zooxanthellae provide the coral with its major source of food, and without them the coral starves and struggles to survive. As the coral dies, all other marine life leave the area, but 3D printing may be able to help.

Scientists are experimenting with 3D printed reefs, with teams in Monaco and Bahrain producing 3D printed sandstone reefs out of actual sand in the shapes of real coral to make the formations as close to natural ones as possible. Initial testing has shown positive results, with marine life quickly inhabiting the 3D printed construction. While they are still testing the efficiency of this method, it’s hoped that 3D printed reefs will help restore degraded marine areas.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen made with a 3D printer? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo Credits:

Enabling the Future

Open Hand Project

Exiii

3Dprint.com

3Dprintingindustry.com

14 comments

  1. Terry says:

    l love it and l love 3D prints but l also like technology as well for the people that need to feel normal to.
    I will be getting fingers crossed the top of my lungs trimmed at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne in the near future but lm normal now and love doing my art as well

    • Brianna Burgess says:

      Completely agree, Terry. We wish you the best of luck with your upcoming procedure!

      – Brianna

  2. Lesley Wlasak says:

    Fascinating, a real change in the current times and capable of revolutionary things which can really help bad situations.

  3. Greg says:

    Having worked in the Areospace industry 3D printing allowed our engineers to prove design concepts relatively cheaply. This also allowed the use of the 3D printed object to serve as a place holder until the flight part was ready for installation.
    The International space station has a 3D printer on board, I am curious as to how it is working in a zero G environment?

  4. Martin Chatfield says:

    The only 3Dprinting I have seen waas at Holon University of Technology, Israel which was printing ceramics from clay.

  5. M says:

    Printing reefs, huh? Why don’t we just stop burning carbon, and the reef will fix itself, and so will the rest of the planet. Ah right, all that coal in the ground burns a hole in some people’s pockets.

  6. david douglas says:

    FYI. I got an infection in my skull which ended up with the surgeons removing over a large third of the skull. Eventually after winning with the infection a CD printed bone was made and replaced under the skin. The hair has grown back and I wait to have enough for a comb over or as I have decided flaunt the scars claiming that they were caused in a duel. Full marks to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.

  7. Barbara Wyss says:

    My friend had trouble with severe arthritis in her jaw. She could hardly speak and could only eat small food, as she could not open her mouth very far. Melbourne University 3D printed a new jaw, which the surgeons then inserted.
    She is a new woman!

  8. Trevor D says:

    I think this is great technology. I currently use Daz3D,Hexagon, etc, to do a lot of 3D design/artwork. What I like is their conduit to 3D printing. As a luthier I am very keen one day to be able to send my customers a 3D print of the guitar that we sat and designed and built. Perhaps a key-ring with their beloved custom on it. For now, I’ll just keep building the real thing until I can afford the bonus “accessories/merchandise”

  9. Diane says:

    A terrific article on what can be achieved with little cost and a lot of love an goodwill. Thanks Cahli

  10. Ruth Jopling says:

    Great article. Would Cahli consider doing a talk for our local computer group in Kalamunda, or a Skype talk or a recorded Power Point presentation on 3D printing. If not, does she know anyone else who might. We only have a dozen or so at the meetings, but all are computer enthusiasts. We would be thrilled if this could happen.

    • Cahli Samata says:

      Hi Ruth,

      Thank you for checking out the article! I am not a 3D printing expert, just a technology enthusiast who loves to find out all about the technological advancements that are changing the world. So I’m not sure if I’d be the most qualified person to give a talk to your group. eCentral Tafe in East Perth offers a 3D printing course, so they may have a tutor or lecturer who would be available for a talk? If you’d just like me to present something similar to what I have put in the article you can contact me through my Linkedin page which is linked to my signature on this article :) Hope this helps

  11. Gail says:

    This is a fabulous report, very interesting and informative. Thanks for this.

  12. Steph says:

    It is great when things once out of reach for many is finally “easily” obtainable. David Douglas love your spirit, and Terry good lucK with your lungs. I can only imagine how 3D printing will enrich the lives of many – physically, mentally, emotionally, environmentally, etc – tis great!!

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