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Last year gave us a small peek into the possibilities of what can be created by 3D printers. From coffee mugs to human organs, 3D printers are becoming faster, more commercialized, and can print with materials beyond plastic. The technology has the potential to save households substantial amounts of money and time. Beyond that, there are exciting developments in medical research that could potentially save lives with 3D-printed organs.
Here are 3 advances in 3D printing we can look forward to in 2014.
1. Consumer products: Small- to medium-size business owners can now build objects themselves without having to rely on a third- party manufacturer. NOOKA recently partnered with 3D systems inc., a leading provider of 3D content-to-print solutions. In describing 3D printing, NOOKA president Matthew Waldman said “3D printing is a catalyst for development of more revolutionary material science and processes. Without a revolution in energy production, 3D printing will be limited to high-end products and industrial products because of the time and energy costs used to produce pieces this method. I am excited that the clean energy issue too will be resolved in my lifetime.”
2. Manufacturing: Advances in 3D printer technology have enabled Michigan Technological University scientists to create a 3D metal printer available at a relatively affordable price of about $1,500. This means businesses can now create their own parts at a lower price, which inevitably reduces the final product costs for consumers. However, there are still limitations on the quality of the metal made from these printers and operators should take precaution during production as working with metal involves some safety hazards.
3. Medical: Perhaps the most exciting innovation with 3D printing is the possibility of creating human organs for patients in need of transplants. The California-based company Organovo has figured out a method for printing a human liver. Able to build liver tissue to the thickness of about 5 sheets of paper (500 microns) the process and results are a bigger deal than they may seem at first glance. At that thickness, the inner cells will die if not supplied with nutrients. Organovo has solved that problem by interweaving fibroblasts and endothelial cells with the hepatocytes (liver cells), effectively creating a functioning vascular system. Although receiving FDA approval will take another 3 to 10 years, Organovo expects to begin selling samples of 3D printed liver tissue for research use in 2014.
3D printing is a disruptive and revolutionary technology. It can create virtually every existing product and reduces the amount of waste involved with traditional manufacturing. There are still some improvements needed with the size and time frames associated with the creation of products as well as laws and regulations on copyright issues that must be written and adjusted to cater to this new technology. Nonetheless, it is an exciting reality that what most people thought only lived in science fiction stories exists today.
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