3D Printing

By: A.C.

On our Facebook Page recently, we have featured articles that show how 3D printing can be used to make practical and fun ‘superhero’ or ‘beastie’ hands for youngsters as well as other prosthetic and medical equipment. ( Our Editor is very enthusiastic about this technology, as he makes clear in his comments).

3D printing is a lot older than some think and MIT or Massachusetts Institute of Technology about 30 years ago filed patents on a printer that was based on ordinary inkjet printers. Designers, Architects and those who are in the field of wanting to build small test models already used what is known as CAD or Computer Aided Design software to make drawings of their idea. This was then scaled up to months of clay modelling and wind tunnel testing on for example – a motorbike or motor car.

The super –brains at MIT saw that anything that could be digitised, by scanning, and then that digital information fed into a printer, that could print the instructions given, was indeed something well worth developing, as there were many applications. I suppose they were maybe thinking at that time of astronauts being sent instructions for a much –needed spare part, and that being printed off in the spacecraft. If that was possible, then so were more earthbound applications.

Professor Neil Gershenfeld of MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, thinks that journalists who have never actually used the machines, or understand the technology tend to get a bit carried away.

“3D printing, something which is interesting, but of limited application compared with all the things a creatively inclined person can do with the other machines.  Gaze on the products a 3D printer can make and you go a bit soft in the head, he thinks, especially when you have never used one in your life.”

“More useful, he says) , is a computer-controlled laser cutter, a numerically-controlled milling machine for making big parts, a sign cutter, a precision milling machine and programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors.”

Prof Gershenfeld and MIT have therefore “empowered “ the setting up of local Fab Labs  in various parts of the UK and worldwide, where folk can get easy access to 3D printing machines and be part of the whole innovative and creative process. It would appear if there is not a Fab Lab near where you live, then the idea is to inspire you to set one up and encourage the community to cooperate in ideas and innovation.

So apart from cooperatively based and manufactured superhero prosthetics for children, what else have I found as examples of this technology being applied in medical fields, or for the disabled?

Medical applications for 3D are already being used in recreating organs in Scotland.
A few years back an enterprising young surgeon printed off a representation of a patients pelvis in order to give the surgical team a better idea of what to expect.

And again, this pioneering work in Wales, which reconstructed a patient’s face after a motor bike accident.

This article  in Forbes Magazine looks at how small start – up companies are using this technology to make prosthetics look more natural. Producing realistic looking “fairings” (something I always thought of as the windshield on a motor –bike) which give the generic skinny metal leg new shape and lightweight “bulk”. These fairings can simply be ordered through camera phone technology, some easy measurements, , and with your instructions the fairings are printed off to your preference . In comparison to what prosthetics cost, these lightweight “fairings” are relatively inexpensive.

BBC Ouch earlier this year featured a disabled Berliner used 3D printing to make himself some designer ramps for his wheelchair; and another who is experimenting with printing “white canes”.

It would seem I could go on finding examples of how this technology is being applied in Medical Bioengineering laboratories for medical, and everyday use in disability.

I suppose the only limitation for this technology is our imagination, and the manufacture of ever more precise engineering machines that do the printing, combined with the use of the alloys, metal and resins used in the printing, thus making the items economic to produce, durable and lasting.

Maybe the Star Trek replicator making spare parts is not such a far-fetched idea after all…

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