3D Print Your Life

A Printing Revolution


A mug with a goofy inscription, a pot in the shape of your favourite movie character’s head, or a cool dragon toy – the 3D printer is a wonder machine for playful spirits. And not just for them. Handymen can easily replace broken tool parts, teachers can make models for their physics classes, and doctors can print you a new heart. Yes, you read that right – even though it’s just a small prototype, it shows the incredible potential of this relatively new technology.

The basic principle is simple. You create or download a digital 3D model and the printer makes it physical. And just as you were once hypnotised by the turning plate in your microwave oven, you can now marvel at the surgical precision of the print head, which applies one layer of material after another.

Attack of the Replicators

The technology is more than 30 years old and thanks to major production cost reduction and quality increases in recent years, investors smelled business and dug deep into their pockets. According to the server Statista.com, the 3D printing market size worldwide will reach $17.5 billion in 2020, roughly four times as much as in 2013.

Much of the credit for making this technology more accessible to the wider public belongs to Czech developer Josef “Jo” Prusa, who started his company in 2009 and designed his 3D printers in such a way that they can partly replicate themselves. On top of that, he made all his work open-source so that everyone can construct his or her own Prusa printer. Give it artificial intelligence with machine learning and a functional arm, and you have the first robot-human war before you can say Skynet.

Plastic vs Glass

3D printing is not just about fancy colourful polymers. Ask the Dutch, namely their royal couple, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, who wore the first reading glasses with printed plastic lenses six years ago. The Dutch company Luxexcel, which produces these lenses, sold over 5,000 of them last year and is being awarded with one ophthalmic quality certificate after another. They’re a lot cheaper to produce than standard glass lenses and are customisable and fully functional. But why not print lenses from glass? That’s where things get a bit trickier.

First of all, while glass lenses are more scratch-resistant, thinner, and cooler-looking, they are also a lot heavier, brittler, and more reflective, which makes them more prone to glare. The other reason is production cost – most of the plastic polymers need to be heated to 200-300°C, while glass liquefies at 1400-1600°C (and soda lime glass at 500-600°C). Its more complex structure also makes it harder to work with. Although MIT researchers introduced industrial-scale production capabilities for glass 3D printing last December, we might need to wait a few more years before we see some of its products at our ophthalmologist.



Laser Savings

Metal is the perfect material to show the key advantages of 3D printing. It works in a similar way as its plastic relative. A powerful laser scans and selectively melts the metal powder particles, which are thinner than the width of a human hair, together layer by layer in a strictly controlled atmosphere. Sounds like a lot of expensive materials and high tech, but worry not, finance majors – the efficiency, effectiveness, and economy are soaring.

Speed comes to mind first. Especially when talking complex designs that need a high level of precision, 3D printers can reduce lead times from weeks to hours. All that cutting, welding, drilling, and sanding fuses into three basic steps: digital design, 3D printing, and installation.

The traditional manufacturing process also produces loads of waste material, whereas additive 3D printing creates almost none. You can imagine it as a competition for the best mini-sandwich. While the traditional manufacturing chef ravages a whole loaf of bread, a kilo of cheese, and two pork legs, the young 3D-printing gastro-challenger adds layer after layer of carefully sliced ingredients and when everything is in place, he dusts off the crumbs.

The simplification of the process leads to savings in energy consumption and labour costs, not to mention fewer design restrictions and easier customisation. Not everything results in a landslide victory for the 3D print team, though. In fact, traditional methods still reign supreme because the costs of metal 3D printing remain rather high, rendering it less suitable when it comes to simpler or too-big-to-be-baked-in-a-printer designs.

The Light Side of 3D Printing

If you are an imaginative soul and metal seems a bit mundane to you, we’ve got you covered. Let’s move on to printing with light. Before your head starts running wild with sci-fi celestial beings that snap their fingers to fulfil your wishes – the material is called resin, which is the sticky, dense liquid that trees produce to heal themselves after physical damage. In nature, it sometimes traps insects, solidifies into amber, and accidentally creates Jurassic Park.

In a laboratory, researchers pour the synthetic resin into a small glass container and use a projector to shoot light at it. When exposed to a certain amount of light, the liquid resin turns solid. The system has so far created objects of up to 1 decimetre in diameter, which took between 30-120 seconds. A little longer than a finger snap, but still not bad. The best part is that you don’t need to create a digital 3D model, because you can scan an existing part and replicate it. No wonder the researchers from the University of California, Berkeley nicknamed their 3D printer “Replicator.”

Underground Rat Burgers

The famous Star Trek food machine inspired a lot of others. Chef3D, Foodiny, and ChefJet are already dishing out chocolate, pasta, and pizza from their printer heads. But why would anyone be too lazy to go into the nearest supermarket instead? The answer consists of four letters, starting with “N” and ending with “ASA.” This organisation launched its Advanced Food Program project in 2013 to make space travel more attractive by providing more appealing dishes for astronauts.

While we all can agree that astronauts deserve some pizza in space, 3D printed food might become the holy grail of processed food manufacturers. If you think about it, processed food is more or less 3D-printed – it goes through a machine straight into a mould and then into a form. Instead of having a huge factory that churns out packaged food, you could use 3D food printers to decentralise the whole process and save a truckload of money on transportation – not to mention becoming known as an environment-protecting visionary and all the interviews you can show your mum and dad.

Fitness coaches and people who obsess about their daily intake would also be happy that they can devise their perfect diet with exact parameters including ingredients, amount of calories, or flavour. Want to decrease your daily intake by exactly 10,5 calories? Or make baked crisps out of cauliflower that taste like strawberries? Have we gone completely demolition-man-crazy? If you wake up one day and realise that the only way to get a proper burger is to descend to the underground and trade your Rolexes for it, we could only say we told you so.



The Bio Miracle

Coming back to healthcare, 3D printing has something way more impressive than metal jaw replacements, endoprosthetics, or plastic reading glasses in store for us. Say hello to artificial organs. Even though almost every marketer uses the verb “revolutionise” as often as a toothbrush, it fits this situation like a glove.

The so-called bio-ink, which is used for growing organs and other body parts, mainly consists of stem cells and hydrogel. Doctors take a piece of your live tissue, mix it with a liquid, and let it cultivate in an incubator. Then they print the first jelly-like construction, impregnate it with neural stem cells, and put it back into the incubator, where it grows into its final shape. The transplantation follows.

A research team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed the first transplantable human ear along with a jawbone, muscle tissue, and cartilage structures three years ago. Two years ago, Australian Reuben Lichter, who suffered from a severe bone infection, was the first person to receive a complete 3D-printed shinbone scaffold. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego restored a paralysed mouse’s mobility with a printed and completely functional replacement of a severed spinal cord.

As you can tell from the last example, human organ replacements remain elusive. The recent 3D-printed heart or kidneys are just prototypes as big as your thumb and there are many more questions to be answered before we are able to create a functional, life-size human organ that our body accepts and which will last for more than a few months. Scientists estimate that the first successful transplant of a “printed” organ will take place in 10 years at the earliest.

One thing is for sure – 3D printers are gradually claiming their rightful place in factories, scientific laboratories, and university classrooms, and we can’t wait to see what else the future has in print for us.