As a researcher and an entrepreneur, the wonder of discovery and the frustration of practical application often go hand in hand. Coming from a background in engineering and biomedical science, I have found that the answer to this conundrum can be found in one word…convergence. The advent of three dimensional printing or 3D printing captures how the process of convergence can truly accelerate innovation.
What it is
3D printing is the production of any solid object from a digital schematic or model. The process of 3D printing is rather straightforward (in theory anyways) as layers of material extruded from the 3D printer are iteratively laid down in varying shapes (and on varying substrates) until the final object has been “printed”. This process is a novel departure from the usual “subtractive process” of fabrication where material is removed from a starting substrate resulting in the final shape. As this technology has matured the cost of 3D printing has reached a point where it is now more accessible to a greater number of users. So the question now is what exactly do you want to 3D print, in a word – everything!
3D printing in the Life Sciences
Let me begin with an example where the convergence of regenerative medicine and 3D printing has led to a push in 3D printing of tissues and organs, yes that rights “printing” organs. Although still early in its application, examples are growing for the use of 3D printing in regenerative medicine in both academia and industry. One example is the San Diego based company Organovo, which is focused on utilizing 3D printing technology in the form of “bio-printers”. The company’s goal is to create new tissue that can be used for both research as well as therapeutic applications. In this example, the “bio-printers” utilize ink made up of living cells/solution mixtures which are then deposited onto a specialty scaffolding substrate to generate new tissues, layer by layer, yielding for example small blood vessels, among others.
Impact of 3D printing, rethinking manufacturing
Now let’s consider 3D printing technology in the broader context of industrial manufacturing. Manufacturing has been in decline in the US as other countries, with access to lower cost labor, have become favored locations for manufacturing. With the advent of 3D printing, President Obama announced, in his State of the Union Address, that he sought to reignite manufacturing in the US through the creation of 3D printing enabled manufacturing “hubs”. Spearheaded by the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), the goal of this public-private partnership is to bring 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) technology to bear against the challenge of revitalizing the manufacturing industry in the US and regaining our competitive advantage worldwide. The applications for 3D printing enabled manufacturing have been touted to span everything from defense to aerospace as well as automotive parts manufacturing among others.
3D printing and the future
From novel technology to enabling regenerating medicine to revitalizing manufacturing in the US, 3D printing seems to be converging toward a radically disruptive tool. Still not convinced as to the power of technology convergence? Then let me conclude by highlighting a recent event hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, and organized by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), titled What If…We Could All Talk to Joi Ito? Joichi “Joi” Ito is the current Director of the MIT Media Lab and a well known activist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist. During this event, when asked to lend his thoughts on the future of technology and the internet, Joi shared a vision where consumers would play an increasingly active role in designing AND producing the retail products they wanted utilizing platform technologies based on 3D printing and enabling design tools. Joi mused on a retail industry completely re-envisioned through the advent of 3D printing technology, the amazing exchange of information through the internet, and our continuous desire as consumers for customization, diversity, and real time access to products.
From medicine, to industrial manufacturing, to customized consumer products, 3D printing continues to converge with enabling technologies, market opportunities, and consumer demands in ever growing and amazing ways. Looking ahead as this technology matures and further grows in accessibility we will likely be seeing more of 3D printing. The real question now is what will you be 3D printing first? Now just imagine if we could have done this for the Segway…