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Don’t shun 3D printers – they might save your life one day

Talking only about 3D printers and guns is like watching a movie in fast forward, slowing down only to watch the bits where people die. But in the whole story of 3D printing, guns are only one short scene…

In the wake of gun blueprints freely available online, 3D printers have had a bad rap, even though their benefits will vastly outweigh any negatives. Garry - www.visionandimagination.com

Talking only about 3D printers and guns is like watching a movie in fast forward, slowing down only to watch the bits where people die.

But in the whole story of 3D printing, guns are only one short scene - the rest of the story is far more uplifting. A whole research industry has flourished with advancements in medicine, manufacturing and architecture - breakthroughs which have actually been developed for decades.

You might be surprised to find out 3D printers have been around since the mid-1980s, but the devices themselves and the material they consumed were so expensive (with small, simple structures costing hundreds of dollars) that the idea of a consumer-level 3D printer was ludicrous. Over the past couple of decades, though, the cost of these consumer level printers has plummeted from more than US$110,000 to as low as US$350.

This resulted in a burgeoning interest from the “hacker” community: not a shadowy bunch of cybercriminals, but groups of very clever and motivated people who like to pull things apart and put them back together better, such as Melbourne’s Connected Community HackerSpace. HackerSpace runs community-operated workshops, where people can meet and work on technology projects like 3D printing.

Research into 3D printing is also blooming in more formal academic centres, with recent breakthroughs including 3D printed medicines and microscopic batteries.

The message is simple: 3D printing will save far more lives than it will ever take - and here’s why.

3D printers are already making medical breakthroughs. From left: Custom 3D printed ileostomy tube, a set of bottom teeth, and tissue engineering scaffold. Bernard Meade and Andrea O'Connor

Saving lives

One of the very few non-gun-related 3D printing stories to make the mass media this year was about Australian researchers who developed a technique which may lead to the production of human tissues, and even organs.

A 3D printer can create a scaffold from implantable biomaterials that degrade safely in the body, allowing new tissues to grow.

New developments also allow printing of living cells or tiny pieces of tissue harvested from a patient biopsy and grown in the laboratory to engineer new functional tissues. Because in the ideal situation this tissue originates from the patient’s own cells, the chance of rejection is almost nil. And the technique is not limited to a specific tissue – it is a generic approach.

dimitrij

Custom medical implants are produced by 3D printing techniques to replace damaged or missing tissues, such as sections of the skull after road trauma. We could take this a step further: imagine if you could print and store your whole skeleton so you have spare parts ready to go, if necessary!

Surgical 3D printed models produced from CT scan data can also help surgeons to plan and navigate difficult procedures.

While significant research challenges must still be overcome to generate viable human-sized 3D organs, this could eventually eliminate organ donor waiting lists. Simply replacing a diseased organ might one day solve diseases we are struggling to control.

Medical applications for 3D printing seem almost endless.

Moving to manufacturing

There are as many stories about how we can improve not only the life of an individual, but the lives of everyone on the planet. From freeing artistic expression to creating better house designs, 3D printing allows a new level of creativity to influence design.

3D printing food may even help alleviate the growing global demand for meat and consequent environmental impacts. NASA has already started looking into a food printer for the International Space Station.

Delivering fresh produce to the International Space Station may soon be a thing of the past. NASA

In this brave new world, the traditional manufacturing limits are lifted. Shared designs online will enable rapid refinements and bring the iterative design process into the hands of the layperson.

And perhaps the most exciting prospect is putting this potential in the hands of children, whose minds are not yet so constrained by traditional methods.

Back to the guns

Recent media attention on 3D printing has focused on the printing of guns. But 3D printers can print pretty much any shape you can imagine - guns just happen to be one of those shapes.

They can also produce objects in a wide range of materials, including metals. See titanium and aluminium-printed objects in the video below.

The simple truth is six months ago, you couldn’t print your own working gun. Today, you can, and in another six months, there will have been more than a year of innovation in the printing of guns and each iteration will solve some small problem.

This will mean that at some point in the near future, a 3D printed gun is likely to be every bit as capable as a “real” gun. It is almost inevitable that we will read about the first homicide with a 3D printed gun, and unfortunately, it will probably be sooner rather than later.

What is clear from recent events is that 3D printing, like many technologies before it, will need effective laws and regulation. And while it sounds obvious, regulation will need to balance people’s freedom to use the technology, with prosecuting those who abuse it and also to protect others from the consequences of that abuse.

While the wonderful thing about 3D printers is they enable innovation in so many aspects of our lives, the flip side of the coin is this could also involve hurting other people. To strike this balance will be difficult, complex and a continual work in progress. But the reality is in 3D printing’s history, a 3D printed gun has killed no one, but numerous lives have already been saved.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson

    Person

    There are tissues which have a function by virtue of their 3D shape. Cartilage for instance, makes an ear because it holds floppy tissue rigid to direct sound. So its easy to see that a printed scaffold can work. Or a skull replacement for somebody who had trepanning, or a new septum for a rugby player.

    But a liver or a kidney, or bone marrow has to perform a function relating to hormones, or chemicals, or cellular production. I'm intrigued to what extent forming a scaffold for liver cells encourages…

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    1. Andrea O'Connor

      Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to George Michaelson

      You are right that creating a complex 3D organ like a liver at human scale is still a big challenge. Evidence is growing that both the mechanics and architecture of the cells' local microenvironment affect how they differentiate, proliferate and migrate. So it is too simplistic to think that just achieving the right 3D arrangement of cells would be enough for complex tissues, but controlling the mechanics (elasticity) as well can direct cell behaviour. A major issue is transport of oxygen to the cells in a large 3D tissue, so creating a functioning blood vessel network and connecting it to the patient’s blood supply will be a key aspect of engineering such organs.

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  2. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Good article, although I'm not sure anyone is under the mis-representation that 3d printers are bad

    I may be wrong but it would appear only the most simple minded person would think this as it is the equvilant of;

    "Factory's make guns, therefor all factory's are bad" - no one actually thinks this and I would be suprised that anyone thought this about 3d printers

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  3. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Rather than a fatality from a 3D printed gun, what about a fatality from a 3D printed critical part. Perhaps an inferior copy of a critical part for a vehicles steering system, or braking component, or perhaps even an engine support bracket for a helicopter? The list is endless.
    We have been fighting pirated software (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) for some time now. Are we ready for pirated hardware?
    And how much could the cost of printing a $2 coin get down to? (If it's less than $2 then I'm off to Harvey Normans).

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    1. Andrea O'Connor

      Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Great questions. As the uses for 3D printed objects grow, there will need to be detailed analysis of the structure - function relationships and quality control issues for items produced in this way, just as has been required for other manufacturing methods.

      Maybe one day we’ll need some more clever engineering to prevent forgeries of coins like that developed in Australia for our polymer banknotes.

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  4. Jay Jay

    Corporate Drone

    On the plus side, when the zombie apocalypse starts at least we can all print up some guns to defend ourselves with ;)

    But at the end of the day, I think 3D printed guns will be the least of our problems - though the thought of them does keep the "hand wringers" busy...

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  5. Gary Cassidy

    Interesting article, thanks.

    Is any work currently being done in the role of 3D printers and joint repair/replacement. Is there any potential here?

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    1. Andrea O'Connor

      Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gary Cassidy

      There is lots of research being undertaken on tissue engineering of joints and some successes have been reported such as repairing smaller defects in knee cartilage. Scaffolds for bone and cartilage growth can be made by a range of techniques including 3D printing. They are not perfect yet but it does have promise.

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