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Entry for science writing competition

As I did not receive any feedback for my entry to the science writing competition run by the Wellcome Trust in association with The Guardian and The Observer, I thought I would post it up here and see what people think of it. It was submitted for the 2011 competition and the subject matter is not from within my own field of expertise.

The topic was prompted by a close friend, who happens to be a very talented jeweller. Around the time of the competition, we were marvelling over a new ring she had bought that had been produced by 3D printing technology and I thought it was the perfect topic for the competition. Obviously, I did not win or even make runner up 😦 but that means I need to focus on how to improve. However, that requires some help – constructive feedback on what can be improved. Although, people are different and what excites one person, does not necessarily excite another. Well, here is my entry….make of it what you will and leave some (constructive) feedback if you wish.

Printing the Future

A close friend of mine happens to be a talented jeweller. Heather is often adorned with interesting pieces of jewellery and I was recently admiring a piece of hers – a metal ring with cavities resembling a cellular structure – and wondered if it was part of a new range she was designing. I listened in disbelief as she explained that the entire ring had been printed in its completed form, that is, no other work required after the printing was complete! Intrigued, I searched for more information on this technological marvel.

3D printing, it turns out, is not as recent a development as I initially thought – it has been in use since 1986 and is part of the new field of ‘additive fabrication’, which simply means construction by building up a structure rather than by chipping away. The term refers specifically to automated layering to create entire pieces, not additive in terms of using techniques such as welding, screwing, forging, etc in the assembly of the product.

Charles Hull developed the first of these technologies that he named stereolithography. This technique uses 3D modelling software that slices a 3D model of the object to be produced into several 2D sections. A UV laser ‘draws’ the first 2D section on a bed of resin to solidify and fuse that region. The building platform is lowered by 0.05-­‐0.15mm (depending on the precision of the instrument) and a fresh layer of resin is applied by a blade that sweeps across the platform. The next 2D section is etched that bonds to the previous layer and so on until the object is completed. The un-­‐solidified resin is cleared away and ta-­‐da! the completed product is ready.

This concept is now applied in a few different ways in terms of the raw materials and the layering technology – these include other types of lasers that fuse particles of a variety of materials into a uniform structure (plastic, glass, ceramic or metal) known as selective laser sintering. Another commonly used apparatus uses a heated nozzle that melts the raw material to extrude it that then promptly solidifies where it has been layered. An obvious limitation of these examples is that the product is made of a single material. The key to this method of manufacturing, however, is speed, precision and adaptability. The machines are currently used by a wide variety manufacturers that use it to rapidly create prototypes of new designs. In aerospace engineering, for example, where precision is key but one-­‐off parts for prototypes are costly. Using additive fabrication, the new part can be produced from powder of aerospace-­‐grade titanium with high precision, quickly and with little to no waste as unused powder can be reused.

Being a biologist who actually studies cell culture myself, I was particularly astounded when I stumbled across a TED talk by Anthony Atala in which he described using an inkjet printer that used different cell types as the ‘ink’. Still it its infancy, this novel tissue engineering technique aims to develop the technology for organ transplantation or wound healing by printing whole organs or skin grafts. Atala envisions a day (likely very far away) when a patient can lie on the hospital bed and the printer hovers over the wound sweeping across and depositing different cells where they are required. Seems quite ‘out there’ but such innovative vision is important for making these leaps forward.

Inevitably, debates about the implications arise and it is important to think of consequences within a given field that adopts this method of production. Take for example the jewellery industry – a jeweller may not know that someone is infringing their copyright halfway across the world or in the house next door. Seedier situations are also possible: a black-­‐market weapons dealer modifying semi-­‐automatic guns into automatics with the greatest of ease merely by clicking print. All the gadgetry required for building an organ in highly sterile conditions will cost a lot of money – one would hope that this did not render it a service available to the privileged alone.

What I find most interesting about this is how versatile these additive fabrication technologies will be. Any item that requires a design – from jewellery to a lamp in your house – the customer can have design control via applets on the web so that the artist or manufacturer can produce and deliver a unique and personalised item. In addition, software for the printers may be sold or made available for others to use under a creative commons license. When I first heard of 3d printing, ‘replicators’ – voice operated machines from ‘Star Trek’ that reproduced food or clothing – were brought to mind and, similarly, the idea of the sweeping cellular printer makes me think of the hand-­‐held ‘dermal regenerator’. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

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