3D Printing: Exploring New Dimensions

3D printing is fast becoming a revolutionary technological tool – and now it has been used by Princeton researchers to create a bionic ear. The ear is not only composed of tissue, but amazingly it also functions like an ear due to embedded electronic components.

Considering our everyday notion of printing as ink pressed on paper, the concept of 3D printing a body part seems pretty wacky. But it’s not too difficult to grasp if you think of printing as a layering process, whether it be layering ink onto paper,  or melting sheets of metal on top of one another. This is called “additive manufacturing.” First of all, a computer model of the desired product is sliced into lots of digital cross sections. The printer then creates the specified object by depositing the cross sections as successive layers of a chosen material. Using this technique, complex objects of virtually any shape can be produced. Consequently, the scope for potential applications and customisability is vast.

The product versatility of 3D printing is not its only advantage; it also allows products to be made wherever and whenever needed. No longer will all our items be “Made in China.” Local manufacturing will become more cost-efficient, facilitated by easy worldwide distribution of digital designs. It is predicted that the rise of 3D printing will drastically alter our everyday life in the same vein as the Internet has, with widespread economic, social and political ramifications.

Such changes are not just limited to industrial settings either – you can purchase 3D printers for home use, for about the same price as a top-of-the-line laptop. These general use versions come with instructions for creating a diverse range of items including backscratchers, ornamental objects and even chocolate. Somewhat worryingly, blueprints to 3D print a gun have appeared online, hinting at the inevitable security and ethical concerns that accompany such technological innovations.

3D printing , however, bears multifarious benefits that far outweigh its possible detrimental uses. For example, in 2011, the technology was successfully used to create a customized replacement jawbone for an elderly woman. Metal powder was fused into a shape tailored to the woman’s existing bone structure, and overlaid with a bioceramic coating to ensure successful implantation. Similar approaches can be used for hip replacements, and body parts can even been built using tissue as the “ink.” Considering the shortage of organs and bones for transplant, this is certainly an important application.

Returning to the recent development of a bionic ear, 3D printing permitted electronic components, consisting of silver nanoparticles, to be delicately interwoven into layers of living cells in a water-like gel. If the electronic component were connected to the auditory nerve of a deaf person, the ear could allow them to hear. Such seamless integration of electronics and synthetic biology had not yet been achieved, and this effort represents a significant step towards the development of complete and working artificial organs. What’s more, the bionic ear could allow enhanced hearing, beyond our usual frequency or volume ranges. 1970s television may become reality, with Bionic Women and Six Million Dollar Men walking among us.

The prospects for this cutting-edge technology are immense, with further postulated applications including reconstruction of evidence from crime scenes, low-cost building construction, customization of food, and new synthetic routes for making chemical compounds. 3D printing is drawing us closer to the brink of a technological revolution, so prepare yourself for a wave of mind-blowing new innovations in the very near future.