Additive Manufacturing Advances: Past, Present, Future
Imagine a world where people in need of organs wouldn’t have to wait for a generous donor or an unfortunate accident to receive one, but could simply print the needed living tissue. Imagine a life where food could be printed with all the specific nutrients a certain body needs while still being appetizing. Additive manufacturing is a relatively new process that continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in manufacturing technologies.
Additive manufacturing (known commonly as 3D printing) is a process for creating three dimensional physical objects modeled after a computerized representation of the object. It is usually accomplished by adding many thin layers of material atop one another successively (“3D Printing”). There are many processes for additive manufacturing, including Selective Laser Sintering — which fuses tiny pieces of material together using a powerful laser — and Multi-Jet Modeling — which deposits material with a head that can move on all three axises, similar to an inkjet printer (“What is Additive Manufacturing?”).
While additive manufacturing as we know it wasn’t invented until the early 1990s, its roots began much earlier with topography and photosculpture. Technology and processes advanced to techniques such as powder deposition before MIT kick-started the many processes of 3D printing most commonly known today. In the late seventeenth century, a man named Blanther invented a process for creating topographical relief maps.
“The method consisted of impressing topographical contour lines on a series of wax plates and cutting these wax plates on these lines. After stacking and smoothing these wax sections, one obtains both a positive and negative three-dimensional surface that corresponds to the terrain indicated by the contour lines. After suitable backing of these surfaces, a paper map is then pressed between the positive and negative forms to create a raised relief map” (Bourell 6).
This was one of the earliest methods of additive manufacturing of three dimensional objects. Another early process was photosculpture, which was invented in the 1800s. In a photosculpture method developed by François Willème, twenty-four cameras placed in a circle around an object would simultaneously take a picture of the subject. “An artisan then carved a 1/24th cylindrical portion of the figure using a silhouette of each photograph,” which, when put together, would create a complete 3D replica of the object (Bourell 7). The carving of the sections was time-consuming, however, so this was not an effective method of any sort of mass production. Technologies advanced to where, in the 1950s, a man named Munz created a method that resembles modern additive manufacturing techniques, particularly those of stereolithography. In the 1960s, Swainson proposed a process for 3D printing involving “polymerization of a photosensitive polymer at the intersection of two laser beams. In the 1970s, Ciraud suggested a method similar to present-day deposition techniques, which involved melting materials using a laser [Bourell 8]. Many other techniques were proposed, but 3D printing with the process it is most commonly known as today wasn’t created and widely known until the 1990s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a company called 3D Systems. Over these short decades, 3D printing gained popularity and media attention. With more people interested in the process of additive manufacturing, more discoveries were made until it reached its current point of advancement.
Additive Manufacturing is a quickly growing industry in terms of scientific advances and increase in monetary value as well as in public interest. “In 2008 worldwide AM products and services totaled almost $1.2 billion. The value of parts and services has increased by about 10% annually for the last five years” (Bourell 1). 3D printing is becoming a major part of the world’s economy, with many printers being produced for uses beyond corporate manufactury. Even public high schools are engaging in the additive manufacturing enthusiasm. In 2015, [Name of High School] in [Name of Town], [Name of State] purchased a 3D printer for school-wide student use, as well as 3D printing pens for art student use. [Name of School] already used a 3D printer for its architecture and technology classes, but as additive manufacturing technology became more accessible and relevant, the school purchased one for wider student use.
The current uses of additive manufacturing are already staggering. 3D printers can currently produce things such as “architectural models, discontinued car-part foundry patterns, industry-wide prototypes, human tissues, the next generation of photovoltaic panel materials, makeup, costumes for movie characters, hearing aids, braces for teeth, prosthetics, jet engine turbine blades, toys, [and] jewelry” (Hughes 18). They can print using materials from rubber and plastics to precious metals and chocolate, and many materials in between. Shapeways.com, a commercial website that sells customized 3D printed objects offers fifteen different materials the consumer can choose to print with. In terms of size, many additive manufacturing developers are focusing on creating printers that are increasingly precise, while others are looking at a bigger picture. The largest additive manufacturing machine in the world is located in China, created by the Winsun company to build furniture and buildings up to five stories tall. It uses construction waste to create the recycled concrete it uses to build, meaning that it’s more ecologically friendly than other construction methods (Sher). Building using additive manufacturing technology cuts down on the dangers and costs associated with manual labor. Surely there will be even greater advances in the realm of 3D printing construction in upcoming years.
The future is bright for additive manufacturing, with many advances — that seem as if they are straight out of a science fiction book — being almost within the grasp of the world’s technology. These advances, including printable medications, food, and even organs, are right on the horizon. Some progress has already been made in these fields.
In 2015, the FDA approved its very first 3D-printed drug. The tablet is supposed to help those who suffer from epilepsy and is called Spiritam. Use of additive manufacturing in medication production is profitable because it “opens the door to commercially producing smaller product batches or even individually personalised one-off products across manufacturing sectors, [such as] producing personalised medicine that is dosed specifically for the patient taking it” (“First 3D-Printed Drug” 16).
Likewise, the process of printing food is profitable in part because it enables the consumer to personalize the nutrition and ingredients in the food. Although printable food may sound far-fetched, NASA has already printed a pizza for use in space (“3D Printing: Food in Space). Also, for thirteen years a German company called Biozoon has been printing food that is both soft and appetizing for seniors who cannot chew their food but dislike the unpalatable smoothies nursing homes often provide (Smith 24). It is also possible to print candies and chocolates into geometric shapes impossible to create without a 3D printer. A ChefJet, which is a 3D candy printer can print one hundred such candies in an hour (Smith 24). This may be a rather small amount compared to mass-production candy-making, but the candies’ shapes are unique and 3D food printing technology is still developing. The Hershey Company has installed a 3D chocolate printer at its headquarters in its Chocolate World exhibit, “where consumers can order their own likenesses and other custom shapes” (Bulik). So even large corporations such as Hershey have welcomed the additive manufacturing craze. Other companies are creating 3D printed chocolates as well, with some companies offering cake toppers with intricate designs. While there is technology enough to print some very basic sorts of food, 3D printing technology in application to cuisine is still very new and developing. With further advances, future food could not only be delicious and cooked to perfection, but also have custom levels of nutrients or be made out of more sustainable resources such as insects (Giles 26). Advances in 3D food printing might also be able to simplify the lives of those with extreme food allergies or eating conditions.
Perhaps the most amazing and unbelievable future advances of additive manufacturing, however, belong to the printing of living tissues. Living cells can already be printed out in layers or blobs, and onto “scaffolds” that are made of 99.8% water and will degrade and be absorbed into the body with no adverse effects (“Gel Scaffold.” 20). However, fully functioning organs still have a little ways to go. In the very near future, scientists may be able to print fully functioning miniature organs for product and drug testings (Vaidya 2). Instead of testing their products on rabbits, makeup companies could test on swatches of living human skin that will never have been attached it any sort of brain. Having a miniature, working replica of a human stomach would enable medication testers to more fully understand the effects of potentially dangerous drugs on the organ. In October of 2014, a group of researchers conducted a study that showed “that they could construct 3D tissue models of breast tumors; preliminary tests using chemotherapy drugs such as doxorubicin suggested that these 3D models might better model actual tumor response to therapeutics than 2D cell cultures” (Vaidya 2). The technology to create full-scale, fully-functioning models of human tissues and organs soon will lie within the grasp of humanity. While some may debate about ethics pertaining to the printing of human tissue, this technology would enable those who are in desperate need of these transplants to receive tissues and organs that are guaranteed not to be rejected by their body to obtain them more quickly and cheaply than is currently possible. This would also cut down on the amount of illegal organ trade. In 2010, the World Health Organization estimated that about 11,000 organs were sold on the black market (Royte). Imagine how much better health care and the world will be after additive manufacturing processes are researched further and expanded upon!
As President Obama stated in his 2013 State of the Union Address, “[3D Printing] has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." The way we build, cook, and even transplant organs may forever be changed by additive manufacturing processes that had roots as far back as the 1600s but have only really begun to erupt in modern times. Although some may claim that modern 3D printers can only produce useless trinkets, additive manufacturing is not only a large part of the global economy but also holds many amazing promises for future innovations.
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