Hearts, kings and spaceships: Five awesome uses for 3D printers
"Duck receives 3D-printed foot" is a headline that wouldn't have made a lick of sense to someone reading it 10 years ago.
We're talking about Buttercup, in the video above, who was born with one foot so badly deformed, it had to be amputated. Rather than face a one-legged future, the lucky duck was given a prosthetic, tailor-made via the growing science of 3D printing.
Bit of a tear-jerker, that story, but it's less sci-fi than it once was, as people slowly hear more and more about what this incredible technology can do - which seems to be just about anything.
Here are five incredible things you can make by putting the ingredients in the printer, hitting a switch, and sitting back for a few hours.
Scientists at the University of Louisville in Kentucky are old hands at making small body parts, according to the Associated Press. They’ve already made artificial splints, valves and even tested tiny manufactured blood vessels in mice.
They’re a few years away from success, but their next trick: A layer-by-layer reproduction of a functioning human heart, made from the patient’s own fat cells:
As the AP reports, hearts grown in this way would be superior to donated hearts. Because they’re derived from the patient’s own cells, it would eliminate the wait for a suitable donor, and minimize the risk of rejection.
Making something out of living cells, of course, is very different from inanimate material, and figuring out how to keep the manufactured tissue alive long enough for a successfully transplant is just one of the many hurdles.
That’s not to say the team hasn’t already been saving a few hearts. Earlier this year, that same institute may have helped secure a future for a 14-month-old boy born with four serious heart defects.
To help the surgeons prepare, researchers printed a model of the boy’s heart, 1.5 times actual size, based on CT scans. And the technology is so advanced that it only took their machines 20 hours to do it. Total cost: $600.
Being able to hold that in their hands must have been a boon for doctors about to undertake a major and delicate surgery. At last report, the boy’s prognosis was favourable.
We may be far away from living hearts, but even the baby steps are huge milestones.
Kings (also, dinosaurs)
No organic tricks for this entry … scientists didn’t actually 3D-print one of England’s most notorious kings. Just his hunched and scarred remains.
Richard III ruled England for two tumultuous years before being killed in battle 1485. His death marked the end of the house of York, and his Tudor successors took care to portray him in the worst light possible, immortalized by William Shakespeare’s Richard III.
His burial place was thought lost for centuries, until a scan of a parking lot turned up the king’s buried remains. There’s a museum that opened in Leicester dedicated to his story, but the remains themselves are to be sealed in a new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.
Without the actual king to anchor their exhibit, the museum’s organizers ordered a 3D-printed replacement, made out of a kind of plastic:
Aside from looking spiffy, the remains have shed a lot of light on the king (he was shorter than people imagine, and his stature was due to a curvature of the spine from a condition called scoliosis, not from being a hunchback). The damage to some of the bones also tells a quite gruesome story about how he died.
But the technology is useful not just for historians, but paleontologists.
This may seem like an odd place to start but, remember the 2001 Jurassic Park III film? If you don’t (or would prefer not to), have a look at the scene below, where a velociraptor’s nasal resonating chamber was replicated with a field 3D printer.
That seemed ridiculously futuristic at the time, but now institutes like the Smithsonian and American Museum of Natural History use 3D printers as teaching tools for students. For research purposes, a 3D-printed replica fossil is easier to transport between researchers, without the risk of damaging the original.
For more giant creatures like Apatosaurus and its like, 3D printers can make smaller-scale versions of its skeletal structure, allowing paleontologists to piece it together and see how it works, a method unworkable with the gigantic real-life fossils.
Some scientists are more ambitious: They intend to eventually print out entire limbs, including muscle and tissue, and eventually a full dinosaur model, at any scale necessary.
You might call 3D printing the last frontier of processed food.
With the technology improving in leaps and bounds, almost everything from chocolate to pastries to pasta can be produced using one of these machines. Like other formulas, you put the ingredients (usually some kind of paste) into the machine, enter your specs and away you go.
You could eventually even have one of these in your kitchen one day although, as is the case with the “Foodini,” be prepared to shell out more than $1,000:
It’s not just useful for home cooking and restaurants. One company in Germany produces printers designed to take fresh ingredients and make them into food suitable for elderly nursing home residents.
Then there’s the long-term challenge of feeding our planet’s ballooning population. You can make 3D printed hamburger patties out of a mixture of fat and cow muscle grown from stem cells, cutting down the cost (and CO2 emissions) of actually rearing entire herds of cows.
If it can be done on a global scale, this would be huge, given rising consumer demand in parts of the developing world that have been rapidly industrializing. But this dissenting voice notes all the new food we can produce would, by definition, be highly processed, leading to increased rates of obesity.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station could probably live with that. NASA is sending up a 3D printer, and one of things on its eventual to-do list: Pizza.
Making food this way could cut down on storage and refrigeration costs, a boon in an environment where every scrap of storage space and joule of energy counts, although NASA says the printer itself may not get around to making the food for a few more years at least.
Actually, about that space printer…
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