3D printing technology is something obvious and affordable in the modern world. Looks like there is nothing special here, but let’s go a little bit deeper and find out how wide this technology has spread.
Not surprising that 3D printing is used in the space industry. It boosts the production of specific particles, making it more efficient and fast. For example, NASA researchers designed and printed a functional prototype of a two-piece rocket injector that met the performance parameters of its 163-part predecessor. The highly simplified 3D-printed injector meets strenuous mechanical property and hot fire standards while reducing manufacturing and assembly time. That is certainly good, but can be much better and bigger. And here comes well-known space companies. Some of them, like Rocket Factory and Orbex, use 3D printing only for some parts of their rockets, but others, like Relativity Space, try to print the whole rocket. What is really fascinating, we hope that technology will prove itself and soon we will see the first launch of a fully printed rocket. By the way, the launch was planned for this year but later postponed to early 2022.
3D printing is used not only to reach space. In 2014 astronauts set up a 3D printer on an international space station and tested the possibility of making spare parts in case something is gonna break or any possible necessity.
Soon, in 2023, technology will go much further and we can expect real space manufacturing factories. Where it’s not only about manufacturing the spare tools and details for use only in space but also about producing something for Earth.
Next step – 3d printing bases on the Moon and Mars. By the way, NASA has already tested 3D printed Mars habitat, it looks fascinating.
Rockets are definitely a cool thing for printing but what about something for everyday life, food for example? And here again, NASA comes first in mind with its deep-space food science research in the area of 3d printing. The main goal and advantage of such an approach – customization of the number of nutritions in the particular dish for a specific person, making food healthier. Another benefit – separate components can be stored for a really long time. Also, such production creates less food waste.
While astronauts are still waiting for 3D-printed burgers, ordinary citizens can already taste various dishes. At the current level of technology, the easiest is to print desserts using something like chocolate. But it is also possible to use a paste made up of beans or vegetables to produce a greater variety of dishes. It is still something weird and not as common as fast food (except pizza, vending machines which produce pizza you like appearing around the world), but many restaurants found this idea innovative and serve their client’s tasty things in a bizarre form.
And the last but not the least part of food 3D printing is meat. The general idea does not differ from other printed dishes, but here we have two main concepts. First – imitate meat using vegetable paste. Second – bioprinting real meat using cell culture. The first works pretty well and some products are already available on the market. The second is much harder and related not only to the food industry.
Despite that, there are still a lot of issues to overcome, some achievements of technological progress we can literally taste now. For example, products of Beyond Meat and Impossible Food can be found in many US stores and abroad. Redefine Meat serves its products in many Israeli restaurants and soon they are planning to come to the European market. And Cocuus trying both approaches, bioprinting and using the vegetable paste to make their hi-tech food available worldwide.
Ok, so now we can print rockets and some food, but what if we feel sick? Taking dozens of pills for a variety of diseases is not the best option. Also should be mentioned, that the dose in a particular pill is designed for an “average” person, the male actually (no evil plans here, just historically most studies were conducted on males) which can cause certain problems for women. So, the actual dose can be too small or too big depending on factors like age and gender. The overall situation looks pretty complex and here comes the demand for personalized medicine. The best option that will fit a particular person’s needs, taking into account physical parameters of the body, gender, and finally – genome.3D printing can be a suitable solution to the problem. It is also possible to produce polypills which will contain a set of active components to treat complex diseases and chronic states. And this is not just a fancy dream but a real working technology with huge potential and many benefits. For example, this way of medicine production is cheaper than the classical one and takes up less space. Thus, necessary drugs can be produced right where they are needed, even in space.
Well, after all mentioned above it is definitely the next thing that comes to mind. Yes, 3D printing of living tissues and organs, or better say bioprinting, is one of the key technologies required for space exploration. It also may help to solve a lot of problems related to health infrastructure here, on Earth. Several companies are already experimenting with bioprinting in space with the goal to deliver “constructed” organs back to Earth and save people’s lives.
But let’s return to Earth. A lot of work has already been done and huge success achieved, like artificial ears, constructed and successfully implanted by Chinese scientists in 2018. At the moment, 3D bioprinting has several real-life applications in the area of regenerative medicine. Bioprinted skin tissue, for example, shows promising results in animal models. Even more, there are some interesting prototypes that allow in situ bioprinting i.e. on the open wound. A dream from the sci-fi films becoming true, opening more possibilities for personalized autonomous medical care. At the current level of technology, in situ bioprinting can be used with various types of tissues like skin, muscles, bones, that already undergo clinical trials.
That was the pros.
What about the cons of this technology?
Despite 3D printers being relatively cheap, expendable materials still cost pretty much. The biggest price is for metal powders used to print details for rockets, aircraft, etc. as well as on printers that can use them.
No 3D printed rocket flies yet, the actual launch has been delayed many times.
Though technology is still not perfect and during metal printing, some defects may occur and there is no way, yet, to completely avoid all of them.
With the food situation much better, it is easy and affordable to make desserts from chocolate and other similar materials (potato or bean paste, for example) which are ready to eat. But there is one thing that should be solved before technology will become suitable for mass production – printing time. The current speed of 3D printing food could be sufficient for home use, but the process is very slow for mass production.
With meat or its vegetable analog, the situation is more difficult. First – it costs quite a lot so far. Second – you need to cook it, it is not possible to print ready-to-eat burgers, for example.
What about the medicine? In this area have already achieved some remarkable breakthroughs – the first drug approved by US FDA in early 2015 and another drug being approved this year. Despite that, it is still not a widely used technology. It is difficult to approve the drug to be used globally and certain nuances with 3D printing technology.
The bioprinting situation is also pretty difficult. At the current level of technology, it is possible to build up tissues applicable for transplantation like skin, bones and retina. Something simple, flat with the minimum amount of different cell types. For organs like the heart, liver, etc. the complexity of bioprinting increases dramatically. One of the main issues – internal vascularization in the bioprinted constructs. It is needed to not only print the organ or tissue but implant it in an existing network of nerves and vessels, which is a real challenge.
It seems that 3D printing is a new base for almost every aspect of our lives. The technologies behind it continue to improve with incredible speed and soon we can definitely expect some kind of a global 3D printing revolution.
The time when most of the things around us can be just printed.
*Article written by Mykola Makogon, also published on author’s Medium account