3D printing has been used by the construction industry and architects for quite a few years, the process which allows them to construct three dimensional objects with layers of material built up to create almost any structure imaginable. However only recently has 3D printing become commercially available to the general public, and with this a vast array of ideas and dreams that once were thought to be only possible in the realm of science fiction are beginning to quickly take form. In one sense this allows consumers to experience on a more intimate level the rapid changes of technology as well as be the pivotal themselves in deciding what the next creation known worldwide will be.
An English organisation known as OpenBionics has taken this initiative and are now developing hand prosthetics for amputees. What makes OpenBionics’ prosthetics so special is that they are the most advanced and affordable for amputees across the globe. OpenBionics’ prosthetics are like none which have come before thanks to the novel use of muscle movement allowing the user to control the functionality of the replacement body part. This allows the user not only to relieve cosmetic concerns but to regain much of the function they may have lost. OpenBionics’ prosthetic moves and functions as a normal human hand does, drawing some comparisons to a ‘Terminator’ like effect. What is particularly innovative about the company’s approach is the use of 3D printing to construct the bulk of the structure of the device. The process can be undertaken in approximately one hour allowing demand to be met far more quickly, and eventually cheaply, than ever before. Commercially this allows OpenBionics to reach a much larger consumer base with plans to offer their prosthetics worldwide this year.
Another advancement in the world of medicine aided by 3D printing is that a toddler from Northern Ireland has received the first 3D printed kidney transplant. The surgery was undertaken by surgeons from London’s Guy and St Thomas’ and Great Ormond Street Hospital who performed the transplant. To conduct the kidney transplant, the child’s father donated his kidney from which the hospital was able to perform a scan and create a three dimensional replica of the organ in order for to conduct the transplant. According to Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust it is the first time that 3D printing has been used to aid a transplant surgery involving an adult donor and a child recipient. Not only does this convey to us how far technology is advancing in the world around us every day, it also shows us that 3D printing is not limited to flights of hobbyist fancy. The technology can be applied to complicated processes such as kidney transplants allowing surgeons to operate with greater precision, allowing complicated and life threatening surgeries to be performed with minimised risk.
UCD itself has joined the 3D printing revolution with its own lab. U3D is located in the Newstead Engineering and Landscape Architecture building located towards the northern end of the campus and is open to all students and staff. Now in its second year of operation, the lab hosts events and training sessions for those interested the emerging technology.
A perhaps more bizarre application of the technology is the 3D print a model of your baby while it’s still in the womb. Parents are getting scans in a 360 degree format of their unborn child in the womb and are having it printed in the form of an eight inch replica. It’s interesting to see that technology has evolved this far allowing people to do these sorts of things and as a way of allowing parents to possess a keepsake of that time in their lives.
Finally, the latest creation from scientists at Harvard marks a new chapter in biology-inspired engineering. Two teams of scientists worked together to advance 3D micro scale printing capabilities with a product that is responsive to time. Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, have taken their 3D printing technology up a level – to the fourth dimension. Their biology-inspired creation attempts to mimic natural structures that are able to change form in response to their environment. As a test the scientists created a flower which opens when near water. This opens a realm of new possibilities for 4D printing in the fields of soft textiles, tissue engineering and biomedical devices. Even in this article alone technology is advancing at a rapid rate with 3D printing only released commercially not that long ago there are already discoveries in the realm of 4D printing and its possibilities which in turn opens another door to the ‘world of tomorrow’ that many of us think about.
- Ros Cleere, Tech Writer