The Past, Present, and Future of 3D Printing
A Glimpse into the History and Potential of Additive Manufacturing
Imagine a world where people in need of organs wouldn’t have to wait for a generous donor or an unfortunate accident to receive one, but rather could simply print the needed living tissue. Imagine a life where food could be printed with all the specific nutrients a certain body needs while still being appetizing. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is a relatively new process that continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in manufacturing technologies.
Additive manufacturing is a process for creating three-dimensional physical objects based on a computer model of the object. The most common additive manufacturing processes involve adding many thin layers of material atop one another. However, there are many other methods, including some that involve lasers melting material together. While “material” might sound vague, there are countless materials that can be used in additive manufacturing, including plastic, concrete, precious metals, and even chocolate.
While 3D printing as we now know it wasn’t invented until the early 1990s, its roots began much earlier. One of the earliest instances of additive manufacturing was a process to create 3D topographical maps in the late seventeenth century (1). Ever since, 3D manufacturing processes have continued to advance. In the 1990s, MIT kick-started the many processes of 3D printing most commonly known today. Now, in the twenty-first century, 3D printing is gaining popularity and media attention.
Additive Manufacturing as an industry is quickly growing in scientific advances, monetary value, and public interest. “In 2008 worldwide AM products and services totaled almost $1.2 billion. The value of parts and services has increased by about 10% annually for the last five years” (1). 3D printing is becoming a major part of the world’s economy, with many printers being produced for uses beyond corporate manufacturing. Many high schools and colleges are introducing 3D printers for student use. Educators understand the potential of these machines, the role they might play in the future of our culture, and the role they play currently on the cutting edge of technology.
Current uses of additive manufacturing are already staggering. 3D printers can currently produce things such as car parts, solar panels, prosthetics, braces, hearing aids, and many, many other things (2). Material for 3D printing can range from the common plastic material to precious metal and chocolate.
In terms of size, many developers are focusing on precision printing, while others are looking at a bigger picture. The largest additive manufacturing machine in the world is located in China, created by the Winsun company to build furniture and even buildings up to five stories tall. It uses construction waste to create the recycled concrete it uses to build, meaning that it’s more ecologically friendly than other construction methods (3). Building using additive manufacturing technology cuts down on the dangers and costs associated with manual labor. 3D manufacturing is already greatly benefiting our society, and the potential benefits in upcoming years and decades are even greater.
The future is bright for additive manufacturing, with many advances — that seem as if they are straight out of a science fiction book — being almost within our grasp. These advances, including printable medications, food, and even organs, are right on the horizon. Indeed, some progress has already been made in these fields.
In 2015, the FDA approved its very first 3D-printed drug. The tablet, called Spiritam, helps those who suffer from epilepsy. Use of additive manufacturing in medication production is profitable because it will enable companies to produce smaller batches or even to personalize medication specifically for the patient (4).
Likewise, the process of printing food is profitable in part because it enables the consumer to personalize the nutrition and ingredients in the food. Although printable food may sound far-fetched, NASA has already printed a pizza for use in space (5). Additionally, for thirteen years a German company called Biozoon has been printing food that is both soft and appetizing for seniors who cannot chew their food but dislike the unpalatable smoothies nursing homes often provide (6).
It is also possible to print candies and chocolates into geometric shapes impossible to create without a 3D printer. A ChefJet, which is a 3D candy printer can print one hundred such candies in an hour (Smith 24). Such batches may be small compared to mass-production candy-making, but the candies’ shapes are unique and 3D food printing technology is still developing. The Hershey Company has installed a 3D chocolate printer at its headquarters in its Chocolate World exhibit, “where consumers can order their own likenesses and other custom shapes” (7). So even large corporations such as Hershey have welcomed the additive manufacturing craze. Other companies are creating 3D printed chocolates as well, with some companies offering cake toppers with intricate designs.
Technology is currently advanced enough to print some very basic foods, 3D printing technology in application to cuisine is still very new and developing. With further advances, future food could not only be delicious and cooked to perfection, but also have custom levels of nutrients or be made out of more sustainable resources such as insects (8). Advances in 3D food printing might also be able to simplify the lives of those with food allergies or eating conditions.
Perhaps the most amazing and unbelievable future advances of 3D printing belong to the printing of living tissues. Living cells can already be printed out in layers or blobs, and onto “scaffolds” that are made almost entirely of water that can be absorbed into the body with no adverse effects (9). However, fully functioning organs still have a ways to go.
Future scientists may be able to print fully functioning miniature organs for product and drug testing (10). Instead of testing their products on rabbits, makeup companies could test on swatches of living human skin that were grown in a laboratory. Having a miniature, working replica of a human stomach would enable medication testers to more fully understand the effects of potentially dangerous drugs.
Full-scale, fully-functioning models of human tissues and organs might one day lie within the grasp of humanity. These organs may even be customized with factors such as the patient’s blood type and other biological factors in mind, meaning such organs may be much less likely to be rejected than donations. While some may debate about ethics surrounding printing of human tissue, 3D printing technology would enable those who are in desperate need of these transplants to receive tissues and organs more quickly and cheaply than ever. Imagine how much better health care will be after additive manufacturing processes are researched further and expanded upon!
As President Obama stated in his 2013 State of the Union Address, “[3D Printing] has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The way we build, cook, and even transplant organs may forever be changed by additive manufacturing processes that had roots as far back as the 1600s but have only really begun to erupt in modern times. Although some may claim that modern 3D printers can only produce useless trinkets, additive manufacturing is not only a large part of the current global economy but also holds many amazing promises for future innovations.