I need 50ccs of toner, stat!

By Tasman Richardson

How often have you watched an episode of Star Trek (don’t lie, you love it) and thought to yourself, when are we going to get replicators? Replicators: those wonderful computer terminals that manufacture, seemingly out of thin air, whatever we request. Well, the future is nearly now and the replicator’s forerunner is a rough around the edges technique called 3D printing.

It all started with the Makerbot.

Spock stares in speechless wonder at the mighty 3D printer.

Makerbot opened new doors by allowing anyone to produce digital mesh schematics in the physical world, right before our eyes. Printing with a quick-hardening liquid (the way Spiderman might spin a web… geek credentials growing), Makerbot pumps out gears, cogs and, incredibly, even complex sculptures. How? First, threads of ink are printed conventionally (across and down), and then layered on top of each other until depth and dimension are revealed. It’s what Mario World was to the video game industry: lo-res, limited colour, challenging at first, and loved by anyone who tried it.

Now, applications for 3D printing are expanding into extraordinary new territories, including food and (brace yourself) human body parts. Before we get to the miracles of medicine, let’s cover the foodie aspect.

Unlike other culinary innovations like microwaves and blenders, 3D printers open up a whole new design space for chefs. Ingredients are placed with exacting precision that enable complex geometric shapes, textures, and flavours to be produced. Think of mixing yellow and blue to get green but instead of being limited to colour, the entire palate of flavours is available. When you get the mix just the way you like it, you can save the blueprint to duplicate again and again.

This ability to duplicate is especially useful for surgeons. By printing a model of a human bone, difficult procedures can be practiced on a physical replica of the patient beforehand. A CT scan provides the details for creating an accurate model, which the 3D printer then reproduces layer by layer.

The most innovative area that medical pioneers are exploring is organ printing. Amazingly, the concept isn’t as far off as it sounds. The scanning technology already exists for making a digital model, so why not print from the digital to the physical? The biggest obstacle is with the patient’s body rejecting the transplant. That’s why 3D printing is so exciting, since it can use the patient’s own cells as printer “ink”. A kidney or liver printed using the cells harvested from a patient’s own bone marrow would be accepted by the body as a part of itself. According to the medical technology company Organovo, objects can be printed in close to an hour and the cells can fuse together independently in a day or two.

Three vastly different industries are adopting this new paradigm of micro digital construction. It will no doubt open up new realms of customization, experimentation, and selection. The flexibility and complexity offered is even more important to commercial applications since total micro control of the production process is prized capability. With the previous limits to production lifted, explorers in this field will have many new areas to boldly go to. It’s not quite Star Trek sophistication, but it’s getting there.

For more in-depth news in these three areas of 3D printing, follow the links below: