A young boy was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He had to take a lot of pills most of which had an awful taste. His mother was quite concerned about this until she had a brainwave. She used a 3-D printer called “pill-coater” which coated all the pills with melted chocolate. From the simple to the complex, 3-D printing offers solutions which lead us to a futuristic world which might even be beyond our imagination.
3-D printing technologies were first developed at MIT in the eighties. 3-D printing belongs to the company of Additive Manufacturing (AM). AM can be described as the set of technologies which use 3-D digital data to build up 3-D objects by adding layers of material which could be polymers, metals, concrete or thinking futuristically even human and plant tissue. AM was first used in Rapid Prototyping (RP). Manufacturers can use prototypes to test a design or product before mass production.
There are many ways to achieve 3-D printing. One is direct 3D printing which uses inkjet technology, emitting waxes and polymers to form a solid object. There is also Binder-3D printing which uses nozzles and two materials which come together and are attached by a glue. MJM or multi-jet-modeling is yet another technique which uses multiple materials to form an object.
Fused deposition modeling (FDM) which was commercialized by Stratasys is a technique which is similar to direct 3-D printing. Here the model is formed by emitting minute flattened strings from the nozzle. These form layers as the material hardens after being released from the nozzle. In this process the nozzle is heated to melt the material. In photo-polymerization, ultra-violet laser beam acts on liquid plastic drops and converts them to the solid state thus forming a 3-D object. Sintering and selective laser sintering (SLS) are techniques which melt and fuse particles according to a design to produce 3-D objects.
Apart from this we have SDL – Selective Deposition Lamination, DMLS – Direct Metal Laser Sintering and EBM – Electronic Beam Melting techniques. All the 3-D printing processes follow a particular procedure. Firstly the design of the target 3-D object is created in a computer using CAD software. The CAD design is then converted to a STL (standard tessellation language) file. STL is a format specific for 3-D systems. Now the STL file is transferred to the computer which controls the 3-D printer. The printer is setup with relevant materials. Thereafter the build process starts and the printer generates the desired 3-D object. Finally the 3-D object is removed from the printer.
The top players in the 3-D printing industry are Stratasys, 3D Systems, Materialise, ExOne, SLM Solutions, Alphaform, voxeljet. Organovo and Renishaw. Organovo is primarily engaged in research. It has released exVive3D human liver tissue, its first commercial product. The company uses its own bio-printer to produce 3D printed organic tissue which it sells to pharmaceutical companies.
Zverse is able to provide complete 3D solutions which include content creation and color production. The weak link in 3D printing is the lack of expertise in modeling skills and software knowledge to create meaningful objects. ZVerse has a content creation platform called LAYR3D. Its software is able to convert any 2D content to 3D printable objects.
According to the Economist – “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did….Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”
The potential of 3-D printing technology is huge. Even now 3D printing or AM technology is being massively used in architecture, aerospace, construction, education, food, automotive, military, eyewear, dental, medical, biotech and many other fields.Chinese scientists have started printing ears, livers, and kidneys with living tissue. Already, after accidents people have been provided with titanium jaws and prosthetics. After braveheart and Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban, her skull was repaired with a 0.6mm titanium plate moulded from a from a 3-D model created using imaging data from Malala’s skull.
The day is not far off when we would be able to do inter-planetary travel and grow and reproduce our food using AM techniques on the way. Also Cyborgs can perhaps be created by infusing human tissue into robots. Robots may then resemble human beings. People might have robotic-cyborg pets and companions powered by artificial intelligence and 3-D printing. Many jobs like chauffeur’s, airline pilots, train drivers may be taken over by these cyborgs. Here, wearable technology like smart-glasses and watches, artificial intelligence, robotics and 3-D printing may work in tandem. We can use these cyborgs as troops or made to order girlfriends and boyfriends. We can perhaps farm brains which are made-to- order with programmed emotion. Even the right DNA can be chosen/cloned. So, lots of Brad Pitt and Angelina look-alikes will be seen arm in arm with lesser mortals. We have only to dream, the world is for technology to conquer!