Think 3D printers and, because of all the recent press attention, you probably think of guns. Yet, this technology really could change the world for the better.
Here are 5 ways in which that’s already starting to happen.
1. 3D Printing Saves A Child’s Life
Kaiba Gionfriddo was born with the main arteries to his heart and lungs misplaced so that they were squeezing his windpipe. This meant that he would regularly, almost on a daily basis, stop breathing and would have to be resuscitated.
Kids can grow out of this condition, but Kaiba’s situation appeared to be one of those cases where fatality was a real possibility.
Doctors working with Professor Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, decided to try a radical new approach.
They used a 3D printer to create a precisely engineered splint shaped like a very small vacuum cleaner hose that they then implanted in Kaiba’s chest to hold his airway open.
Three weeks after that operation, which occurred in February 2012 but was first reported on last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Kaiba was able to come off ventilation and has so far been free of breathing difficulties.
As you will see below, the medical possibilities for 3D printing are especially abundant.
2. 3D Printers Taking Food Replicators From Star Trek to Your Living Room?
Well, maybe not in the near future but, as we’ve learned, whenever NASA invests in technology there are often benefits for us mere Earth-bound mortals.
As such, news that NASA has invested in a firm that is developing a 3D printer capable of printing pizzas for the International Space Station gets our lips smacking already.
NASA recently awarded a $125,000 grant to the Systems & Materials Research Cooperation to design a 3D printer capable of taking 30-year shelf stable foodstuffs and making pizza. The Texas-based firm has previously printed chocolate.
Obviously, we’re still a long way from printing complicated three course meals, but the potential applications for simple, nutritious food are vast.
Also, while 3D printers alone are unlikely to end world hunger, printing nutritionally enhanced food with the correct balance of sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein and key vitamins, could potentially help curb famine and certain malnutrition-related diseases.
3. 3D Printers Fixing Heartbreak
Heart abnormalities are infamous for being difficult to operate on as surgeons have limited means of assessing the problems with the heart before they begin the procedure.
Factor in the added intricacies of working on children’s hearts, which are obviously much smaller than an adult heart, and the need to be as prepared as possible becomes clear.
After gathering data about the patient’s heart using computerized tomography and ultrasounds, the data was then fed into a 3D printer. They used that printer to build a replica of patients’ hearts layer by layer.
This created a fairly accurate approximation of the heart that surgeons were able to examine in a way previously unavailable to them.
This kind of practice could one day become the norm for complex surgeries of all kinds where having to scale models with a high level of detail could be beneficial to patient outcomes.
4. 3D Printers Used to Create New Body Parts
More than just creating models of our internal organs, 3D printers are already capable of creating replacement body parts, albeit in prototype form.
While it’s certainly true that this research is in its infancy and many more trials and tests need to be done, 3D printers have already played a part in generating prosthetics, including prosthetic limbs:
5. 3D Printers Used to Illuminate the Past
In late 2010, scientists discovered an ancient whale graveyard in Chile’s Atacama desert. What had driven the whales half a mile inland from the Pacific Coast was a mystery and this is where scientists faced a problem.
In order to properly study the fossils, they would have to remove the fossils from the site and potentially damage or destroy some of their much-needed evidence. In so doing, they could lose vital clues about the fossils.
Then, Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson came up with a great idea to solve this problem.
Along with the Smithsonian’s digitization team, he mapped the whale skeletons and surrounding area with a number of laser scanners.
By doing this, they were able to document every facet of the skeletons, including their peculiarities, and then generate scale models of the 20-foot whales for examination.
This meant that they could begin to unlock the fossils’ secrets and, even after having to remove the fossils from the ground, continue to examine them as if they were still at the site.
What’s more, in the future we may see fossils rendered to scale as 3D printing becomes more sophisticated and more readily available, meaning the general public will have more opportunities to see accurate representations of past organisms, objects and even people.
So what’s the take away from this?
It’s certain that 3D printing, if it lives up to all it could be, will pose significant challenges for nations across the globe in terms of the manufacturing of illicit items, drugs and weapons.
At the same time, it stands to offer us an opportunity at revolutionizing industry and, some analysts predict, ending world hunger, poverty and possibly even climate change issues.
Finally, here’s a video explaining how the 3D printing process might work for personalizing products and how, in the future, more and more manufacturing may be in our hands:
Image credit: Thinkstock.