Tech: Printing a three-dimensional future

This will revolutionize the concept of “spare parts” inventory, for one thing…

[from The intelligencer]

In a converted office space in Perkasie, machines are creating complex human organs out of plastic to help doctors better plan for surgery.

An hour away in Philadelphia, a dozen cubes in various states of assembly cover a folding table, destined one day for researchers who are trying to grow human organs from nothing but a string of living cells.

Traditional printing has always involved length and width, but the addition of the third dimension — depth — has been a game-changer. Once thought of only in the realm of science fiction, today’s three-dimensional printing technology is allowing advances in everything from health care to conventional manufacturing.

“I honestly don’t have the imagination to think about what you can do with this,” said Jim Williams, a member of America Makes, a public-private partnership tasked with advancing three-dimensional printing in the U.S. “But there are people out there living their lives thinking about the impossible.”

Three-dimensional printing has changed printing technolgy
While the technology has been around for decades, 3-D printing has taken off in recent years, thanks to advances in machinery and the material being used to print. GE, for instance, is now using 3-D printing to create jet engines and parts. NASA is exploring ways to 3-D print food in space. A 2,000-square-foot office building constructed entirely by 3-D-printed parts just opened in Dubai.

And that’s not all.

Scientists have implanted 3-D printed ovaries in mice, which restored fertility in at least one rodent. They’re working on ways to print human liver tissue for transplantation. And they’re using three-dimensional printing to make customized prosthetic limbs for amputees.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this technology is going to change everybody’s life,” said Danny Cabrera, co-founder of BioBots, a Philadelphia company making 3-D printers that can print with biological material. “When we started the company, the vision and the goal was to build tools that could empower people to design and engineer living things. That goes way beyond fabricating 3-D living tissue. It goes beyond even fabricating organs. This goes to being able to engineer new organisms that can help us revert climate change, or help us live on other planets.”

The first three-dimensional printers were developed in the 1980s to speed up prototyping, the process of creating models of a proposed product to test its design and function. In 1986, a patent was issued for a “stereolithography apparatus” to Charles Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems Corp., a South Carolina company that continues to be a leader in the 3-D printing industry.

3-D printing adds the dimension of depth to length and width
Traditional manufacturing starts with a larger piece of material and whittles it down to smaller parts. Three-dimensional printers, on the other hand, work much like inkjet printers. But instead of going back and forth with ink, 3-D printers go back and forth with a base material such as plastic or metal (or for more advanced printers, a combination of materials). A laser fuses the layers together to create a shape based on a computer-generated design. Because it adds material rather than subtracts it, the process is also known as additive manufacturing.

Early 3-D printers were designed for industrial use. The first commercially available 3-D printers hit the market around 2009; today, enthusiasts can readily find free plans online to build their own printers as well as specifications for products they can make.

“We really want them to get a machine, riff on it, upgrade it as they see fit,” said Kara Sawinska, a marketing association for Aleph Objects of Colorado, maker of the LulzBot 3D printer. “We have people who will print replacement parts for their printer, because all those files are out there. That’s a cool thing to foster a lot of collaboration in the community.”

Aleph, which has a distribution facility in Philadelphia, surpassed $15 million in sales last year and recently made its 1 millionth 3-D printer part. The part was, of course, created on a 3-D printer.

At a time when traditional manufacturing continues to decline, the additive manufacturing industry has seen tremendous growth, an average of 26 percent a year over the past 27 years, according to Wohlers Associates Inc., a Colorado-based consulting firm that concentrates on the 3-D printing industry. Last year, the industry grew to be worth an estimated $5.165 billion worldwide, up nearly 26 percent from 2014.

“It’s now getting the attention and respect it has never received in the past,” said Terry Wohlers. “Major companies and brands are getting into this.”

Shoe companies, hearing aid and eyeglass manufacturers and even jewelers are incorporating 3-D printing into their manufacturing processes to make pieces that are more highly customized to their wearers. Toymaker Mattel unveiled the $300 “ThingMaker” at this year’s Toy Fair trade show in New York. And technology companies like HP and Cannon are unveiling new 3-D printing technologies for consumer use, as well.

Still, the industry is far from mature.

“3-D printing has a way to go,” said John Hornick, an intellectual property attorney and author of the book, “3D Printing Will Rock the World. “In another 10 years, 15 years, the machines will be much faster, much more sophisticated, and that will be important for wider adoption.”

Creative Mechanisms CEO Tony Rogers credits three-dimensional printing with helping his Warminster firm respond to changes in the industry, which started in the 1980s as a prototyping company and has done work for toymakers and other companies.

3-D printing has changed how companies make prototypes
“It was very labor-intensive,” he said of traditional prototyping. “You had guys physically hand carving, hand shaping. There was very little technology then. It was a craft. But as China developed, that all moved off shore. There was a period of finding what works here in the U.S.”

Today, Creative Mechanisms still makes prototypes, but focuses on mechanisms — anything with moving parts that requires some sort of assembly.

“This machine has made this job so much easier,” said Art Klotz, a design engineer who spent decades in the prototyping industry. “It’s revolutionizing this business.”

The skill today isn’t in the hand-crafting of the prototypes, but in using the 3-D drawing software to create them, Rogers said. To do this, he has a mix of older employees — like Klotz, a former machinist who has worked for Creative Mechanisms for almost 20 years — and younger engineers with backgrounds in computer science.

“We used to hire machinists, people who were coming from the tooling industry, people that could run milling machines, lathes,” Rogers said. “Now we hire ‘degreed’ mechanical engineers to do everything.”

Three-dimensional printing isn’t just turning American manufacturing on its head. It’s also having a big impact in medical manufacturing.

Last summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3-D-printed drug product, a form of the anti-seizure medication Spritam. The drug is manufactured by Middletown-based drug company Aprecia, which developed a 3-D printed “ZipDose” technology that allows high-dose pills, which typically are hard to ingest because of their size, to rapidly disintegrate in the mouth.

“What we’re able to do with our technology platform is accommodate high drug loads,” said CEO Don Wetherhold. “Without 3DP, it would be difficult to create a fast-melt formulation. Up until this point, it wasn’t feasible.”

Aprecia, which is moving its manufacturing facility from East Windsor, New Jersey, to Blue Ash, Ohio, had to prove to the FDA that the drug formulation remained the same throughout the 3-D printing process.

Wetherhold said he foresees the ZipDose printing process being used for other products, as well.

3-D printers are creating models of organs for surgical preparations
“We envision that there are multiple products that could be brought to market in a lot of different therapeutic categories,” he said. “Also in other lines of businesses, such as over the counter products and veterinary products. We just envisioned many, many different ways to create value to benefit patients.”

David Szabo believes 3-D printing can benefit patients in other ways, too.

A few years ago, Szabo’s Remedy Simulation Group began incorporating the technology into its manufacturing of simulation trainers for medical and nursing schools. But it’s also using the technology to enter a new market for pre-surgical models.

The models of organs, such as the liver or heart, are printed based on patient CT scans or MRIs, which are digitized into readable files. Doctors can use the 3-D model to get a closer look at the patients’ anatomy and plan the surgery.

“As incredible as imaging is, you still can’t see everything,” Szabo said. “(The doctor) can send us the data from the scan, we’ll digest that data, put it into a printable format, and do some of our secret processes, and we’ll give him back a model of (the patient’s) heart. There’s no guess work anymore. That saves the whole system time and money.”

Cardiologist Kevin Whitehead, head of the 3-D printing program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said such models can help surgeons plan for complicated surgeries.

“Sometimes, for very complex hearts, it’s difficult to visualize for the surgeon how to go about (performing the surgery),” said Whitehead. “What the model allows us to do is show the surgeon the heart in a fairly similar way he might see it in the operating room, and visualize where he’d place the (surgical) patch. It’s moving from 2-D images, which sometimes are adequate but sometimes are not, to a more 3-D and physical representation of the anatomy.”

3-D printers create models of human organs
CHOP develops and prints its models in-house, and is part of a clinical trial to quantify how the models help in surgical planning.

“I believe that will prove to be beneficial in these certain types of cases, allowing for better outcomes of surgery,” Whitehead said. “Getting a better understanding of the heart defect will allow for better outcomes for surgery. But going beyond that, I think what we’re moving toward is actually looking at doing virtual repairs and printing those out, looking at what the repair would look like and then potentially even testing out those repairs. I think we’re be able to come up with better repairs and (have) more confidence that the proposed repair is the right strategy.”

However, Szabo said, the 3-D models can be expensive, costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, depending on the organ. Since health insurance doesn’t pay for it, some doctors are hesitant to order them. The Remedy Simulation Group has brought the price down by combining 3-D printing with traditional molding, Szabo said.

“It’s going to let us grow,” he said of combining the two processes. “I can scale in that direction. But we have to be smart about it, too.”

To build new organs, scientists are using material such as stem cells to create tissue that mimics the organ they’re trying to create. If they’re successful, they hope they can then use a “bioprinter” to print that tissue into the required shape.

To do so will require what’s known as a “scaffold” on which to place the cells in the correct shape. Companies like medical textile manufacturer Secant Group are answering that call. The company has created a manufacturing process to create a 3-D structure that could one day be used to support the growth of new living tissue.

“We’ve taken an 18th-century technology and repositioned it into the 21st century,” said Seth Winter, technical director for the Telford company. “We’re taking weaving technology, in a very digital fashion, and essentially programming the loom to create three-dimensional textile structures, interlacing the yarn in such a way that is an actual 3-D structure, much in the way an actual 3-D printer will manufacture a product.”

While most 3-D manufactured products are made from rigid material, Secant uses textiles that are strong and flexible. Its first product is designed to be used in the trachea. The product would create a “scaffold” for biological material — material that itself could be printed in three dimensions. Secant is looking to partner with researchers to further develop the product.

“This is not a technology that we’re looking at two years from now; it’s probably 10 to 20,” Winter said. “We have a platform that really offers an opportunity for those in that field of research right now, to begin to look at this as a way to expedite that scaffold creation process.

BioBots 3-D printer works with human cells
BioBots, the Philadelphia-based bioprinter company, is also working closely with researchers to determine what material can be used in the printers.

“They’re using the devices to figure out how you build 3-D living tissues that are useful, that behave the way tissues in the body behave,” Cabrera said. “They’re trying to fabricate miniature tumors. We have scientists working on building cartilage.”

Scientists have already 3-D printed liver tissue, and although much of the printed tissue is being used in pharmaceutical research, industry experts foresee using it in implanted organs, skin grafts and other procedures in the near future.

“I suspect by the early 2020s, you’re going to be able to see the first implanted 3-D printed liver,” said Steven Hausman, a technology consultant from Gaithersburg, Maryland. “They’re getting prosthetic limbs, part of which can be 3-D printed now. You can print a customized implant to replace the skull, and it shows no difference. (There are) customized ribs for people who have lost ribs to cancer. These things are happening now. Almost every part of the body that can be modeled can be printed.”

Three-dimensional printers, Hausman said, will one day be an everyday fixture in people’s homes, printing everything from household parts to food.

“It’s not right around the corner, but it will happen,” he said. “People are thinking about it, and they’re going to want to see it in their homes. A lot of stuff in your home now, you couldn’t envision 20 years ago. There were no smartphones. Everybody has a computer now, at least one, and smartphones, and GPS, and things like that. The kind of stuff we’re going to be seeing in the next 20 years is going to be hard to imagine.”

Said Williams: “If you think it, you can build it. We’re in that shift now, where designers and engineers can think about the impossible — and they can build the impossible.”

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