With the push to go green, printers have become yesterday’s technology, but 3D printers are quickly changing this. These printers work the same as the familiar 2D versions except that, instead of ink, they spew out silicone, cookie dough, plastics or even human cells in rows, to build up a 3D form and can make seemingly anything from toys to meat.
The know-how to make 3D printers has existed for about two decades, says BBC, but it’s only recently that it’s been possible to bring the price down. MakerBot now offers a 3D printer for less than $2,000 and others are seeking to produce even cheaper versions. But what might be the latest gadget for some households has the potential to revolutionize medical care in parts of the developing world. In rural India, a lack of roads is just one reason that people lack access to medicine; with the aid of a 3D printer, these could be printed in rural villages themselves.
Vigyam Ashram is an educational project that is part of FabLab, which was set up by MIT physicist and computer engineer Neil Gershenfeld. “Learning by doing” is Vigyam Ashram’s philosophy; the project provides villagers with kits from MIT with the aim of teaching them to use the kit to solve problems. It is hoped that 3D printers could become part of the kit. Here are five things the printer could make that could truly make a difference in the lives of rural residents around the world.
1. Tractor Parts
Rather than have to wait for weeks for a replacement part to arrive, what if you could simply print one out?
By adding chemical reagents to the list of possible inks, he showed in April this year that a 3D printer could be used to print a set of reaction flasks and linking tubes out of bathroom sealant, and in the walls of these flasks he printed catalysts and sensors. Another set of liquid inks, the reagents, were then squirted into the printed equipment to carry out simple chemical reactions.
The capacity to print medicines could be used for fraudulent ends, so regulation by bodies like the FDA would be needed to prevent (or try to, at any rate) abuse. But the potential applications for making life-saving medication more readily available in developing countries is fascinating.
3. Artificial Limbs
Georgia Tech computing engineer Grant Schindler has started discussions with prosthetics and orthotics specialists to use 3D printing to create artificial limbs. Schindler’s Trimensional app can turn many 2D images into 3D ones. While he created the app as a “social tool, for fun,” it in effect turns an iPad into a 3D scanner. Using it (with better cameras and scanners and faster software), people could potentially scan body parts using the iPad to create custom-fit prosthetics and orthotics.
4. Eyeglass Frames
Frames often wear out long before lenses do and are hard to come by in the developing world, says the BBC, but a 3D printer could produce custom-fit new ones on the spot.
5. Replacement Organs
3D printers could print skin and blood vessels; organs like a stomach would be harder and those that are solid (the liver, the heart), hardest of all.
But last year, Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed out a kidney, albeit a non-functioning one. Cornell University Jonathan Butcher is working on using biological polymers to make a 3D working heart valve. As he noted, being able to print organs could “slash the cost of organ transplant surgery and help bring it to the developing world”; such “made from scratch” organs can be made from only $10 worth of polymer.
Whoever thought that you could do so much with a printer?
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