In the last few years, 3D printing has evolved from a fringe hobby into a practice with genuinely exciting and far-reaching implications. This is largely due to the increased affordability of basic printer models and the media coverage behind the technology.
By far and away the most exciting implications for the technology, however, are in the many ways it is having a genuinely positive impact on the world.
The medical applications of 3D printing are perhaps the most immediately evident and exciting. On a more basic level, the technology allows patient scans to be brought to physical life, allowing doctors and surgeons to get a more precise picture of what they’re working with.
This means less complex surgery and less time under potentially dangerous anaesthetics for patients. These models can also be used to give patients a more thorough understanding of procedures and their own anatomies. Quick model printing will also allow medical tools and instruments to be prototyped and trialled, then printed fresh when required.
The most newsworthy way that 3D printing can benefit the healthcare industry, however, is through 3D printed prosthetics and organs, which are already making major waves in the industry. Bioprinting is a 3D printing process that could effectively remove the need for human organ transplants in the future by using stem cells in place of the generic filament. These create tiny organs known as ‘organoids’ that are implanted inside a patient to organically grow inside them and take over when the organ they have been built to replace, fails.
The same tech can also be used to create a 3D-printed skin for burn victims and a printed ‘polypill’ that houses multiple drugs in one capsule. Recently, scientists at Princeton University even managed to 3D print a working bionic ear.
Solving World Hunger
It’s been posited by many scientists in the know that 3D printing, if utilised effectively, could hold the key to solving world hunger. With the global population set to expand to almost 10 billion by 2050 and two-thirds of the population in Asia starving due to a lack of food, it’s been predicted that, if food production doesn’t double in the next 30 years, we’re all going to be in a lot of trouble. 3D printed food could be the answer here.
A leading mechanical engineer called Anjan Contractor can be held largely accountable for this good news. He discovered that flours made from dried insects not only contained more protein than most common sources, but could last up to 30 years! Insects are obviously far easier to farm than livestock and take up significantly less space.
By using this flour as a building material, 3D-printed food could be developed that provided all of the nutritional needs a hungry child or pregnant mother could need. The cartridges used to create these meals are also tiny, so shipping costs would be negligible.
Of course, to the western world, the idea of chowing down on insect powder probably doesn’t sound too appealing, but this flour would only be used as a base protein, to which any number of flavour combinations could be added.
Homes for Everyone
Whilst it might have once been thought the stuff of science fiction, homes produced by 3D printers are being explored as a genuine solution to the global housing crisis. Home construction is still an incredibly wasteful process. Affordable 3D printing cuts down almost completely on wasted materials and the homes are also said to be more resilient to the elements, which could prove particularly handy as climate change starts to take effect.
Whereas the poorest people in the world are generally always the last to feel the benefit of new technologies, it appears this time, they’ll be the first in line and that truly is something to celebrate.
The housing startup ICON has been working on the issue with a number of non-profit housing organisations and plans to use the technology to build cheap, stackable homes in the developing world for people who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise. It’s estimated that these homes could cost as little as $4,000 to build and would only take between 12 and 24 hours each to finish printing in a bespoke warehouse environment.
These homes would then be transported to their final destination and assembled. With building costs set this low, it’s easy to see how the process could completely change the game when it comes to affordable housing.