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3D Printing Experts Predict the Future

        The excitement surrounding additive fabrication has more to do with its potential than current realities.  Yes, a lot has already been accomplished, but the industry is still in its infancy.

        To try to determine when we can expect to see breakthrough developments in 3D printing, we virtually assembled a team of experts.  Each one weighs in on a hot RP topic: Bioprinting, Rapid Automated Fabrication of Buildings, a Sub-$1,000 3-D Printer, Self-Replication, & the Development of a Wide Variety of Material Options.  See their predictions following.

Expert: Vladimir A. Mironov, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director of the Medical University of South Carolina Bioprinting Research Center.  The Center hopes to successfully transplant the first 3D printed human organ.

Are certain types of bioprinting being done already?  If so, what?


a) Sangeeta Bhatia from MIT, together with Jennifer West from Rice University, bioprinted living 3D liver construct using

Bioprinting a Heart Using 3D Printing
Photo Courtesy MUSC Bioprinting Research Center


b) Tsinghua University group in China also printed liver construct using chitosan-collagen hydrogel.

c) Forgacs' group at the University of Missouri printed branched segment of branched vascular tree.

d) Group at Cornell University bioprinted living cartilage construct.


How long until bioprinting will become widespread?


Conservatively speaking, it will take several decades.  For example, development of the artificial heart took 25-30 years.  It will take probably $1 billion to print living human organ suitable for clinical implantation.


Progress in any new technology depends on basically three factors:

a) Reasonable sustainable funding

b) Committed  well-organized scientific community (critical mass)

c) Commercially-available tools (bioprinter, bioprocessible and biomimetic hydrogels)


Prediction of future speed of technology development without knowing exact funding is just a guess or, at best, irresponsible speculation. 


Ideally, "Organ Printing Project" must be funded and managed as DOD Manhattan or NASA Moon Landing or NIH Human Genome projects.


What are some technical hurdles still to be overcome?


a) We need multi-nozzled and multifunctional industrial bioprinters.

b) We need blueprints (CAD) for soft organs, incorporating the fact that living tissue undergoes compaction, condensation and remodeling after printing. For example, if one wants to print organ with size 10 X 5 X 5 sm, then blueprint must be 20 X 10 x 10 sm.

c) We need a diversity of bioprocessible and biomimetic stimuli-sensitive functional hydrogels.

d) We need to find a way to print a "built-in" intra-organ branched vascular tree suitable for perfusion.  Without perfusable intra-organ vascular system, bioprinted organ will die immediately.

e) We need accelerated tissue maturation technologies.

f) We need a novel irrigation dripping tripled perfusion bioreactor.


Do you see this eventually making organ donation obsolete?


Yes, I do.  I have no any doubts about that. This is an ultimate goal of tissue engineering.


Rapid Automated Fabrication of Buildings
Expert: Behrokh “Berok” Khoshnevis, Director, Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) & Professor, University of Southern California.  CRAFT is working on building a custom-designed house in a day.

Is some form of this being done already?  If so, what?

No, not commercially.  We have had numerous offers for licensing but we have decided to wait and advance the technology further. Our goal is to license the technology to a reputable and capable company.

How long until this technology becomes commercially viable?

I hope within the next two years some form of allocation will be commercialized.

What are some technical hurdles still to be overcome? 

The major problems are due to the material delivery system. Accurate transferring and metering of viscous concrete is a big challenge.

Do you see this eventually making traditional home building obsolete?

Definitely yes. Of course, there will still be people who would prefer to build their homes by hand, as some people build their motor bikes and cars by hand at great cost today, but that will not be mainstream.

Sub-$1,000 3-D Printer

Expert: Cathy Lewis, CEO of Desktop Factory.  The California company is planning the roll out of its breakthrough $5,000 3-D printer in January, 2009.

How long until someone builds a turnkey sub-$1,000 3D printer?

7 – 10 years

What are some technical hurdles still to be overcome? 

Consumer safety of process and materials, reliability expectations, color requirements, a wide and safe range of materials, materials performance (tensile strength w/o post processing, etc.), safe environmentals, materials packaging, materials and object disposal (sustainability), build times (a consumer will not be happy with current industry performance),  rights management (including some level of protection from criminal use) , support to a non-technical audience, consumer-friendly solid object modeling software, scanners and other 3D file enablers, technology to make files from all manner of sources water tight . . .

Do you see this eventually making some forms of traditional manufacturing obsolete?

Absolutely. Even with the materials we have available today, we can replace some of the common objects people go to stores to buy.

We have some remote control cars here at Desktop Factory that the engineers like to race when they are looking to blow off some steam and relax.  We used to buy all of the replacement parts at the hobby store. Now we have designed those parts – wheels, struts, etc. – in CAD, and we simply print our replacement parts.

Clearly, we will need manufacturers to make file formats available for a fee (or free) and the materials will have to be specified for a given application. But the potential is there under the right set of circumstances.


Expert: Adrian Bowyer, Senior Lecturer, University of Bath, and founder and leader of the RepRap project.  This open-source program to develop a simple self-replicating 3-D printer is being worked on by engineers and hobbyists around the world.

Is some form of self-replication already being done?


Yes - by us.  We've had our RepRap machine make 60% of all the parts of another RepRap machine, which we then got making enhancements for itself.  The remaining 40% are all standard things from hardware shops that anyone can get easily anywhere on Earth.  (An interesting coincidence is: we can make 60% of ourselves; we have to get the rest from our environment; we can synthesise twelve out of the twenty amino acids that we need...)


How long until complete self-replication is possible, including motors and electrical components?


With motors and electrical components: maybe 2-3 years.


With motors and electronic components: maybe 8-10 years.


What are some technical hurdles still to be overcome? 


Not many really.  We know how to do just about everything we want to do, and we've proved a lot of it experimentally.  But there are only so many hours in a day...


What will this accomplishment mean for the world of manufacturing?


It'll be a long time before the manufacturers of supertankers start to feel the chill.  It'll be a short time before the manufacturers of coat-hooks start to feel the chill.  Everything else is somewhere in between...


I think three big interesting areas are consumer electronics, domestic transport, and pharmaceuticals.


Once we have electrical circuits cracked, it won't be very long at all before people are making their own e-gadgets and then plugging in the chips and batteries.  This won't just affect manufacturers: if you make your own phone, why bother to connect it to a network and actually pay?


Paying for things is so twentieth century. Just have each phone act as a relay/base-station for other like-phones until a call can find a wi-fi hotspot to zip down.  (This'll probably happen sooner, incidentally, because people will do it anyway with Android-based phones.)


Making a car will be an interesting challenge.  But I use a conventionally-manufactured electric scooter every day.  It gets me about just fine, and there's not a lot to it.  I think I could make one with a multi-material RP machine and a laser cutter.  (We are looking at putting a laser head on RepRap, incidentally.)  And I can imagine that a village of people all with replicating RP machines might club together to make most of the parts of an open-source electric car every six months or so, thus keeping all the villagers in transport (and spares, of course).


Costs of patented drugs are a very significant factor in healthcare, and those costs also prevent a majority of people in the world getting the healthcare they need.  Even in the UK, some drugs are deemed too expensive to prescribe.  But there is a very intriguing aspect of patent law: a private individual can make anything that's patented for their own use and need pay no royalty on it.  Now, suppose someone puts an open-source design for a microfluidic chemical synthesiser that can be made by RP up on the web.


Anyone with a replicating RP machine can make one, and thus make their own drugs, patented or not - remember that they probably only need a few tens of milligrams a day.  Further, the path is then clear for open-source drug development by private individuals swapping ideas over the net.  If a bunch of hackers can write the best operating system in the world, give them the means to synthesise and to experiment and how hard can making a new angina drug be?

The Development of a Wide Variety of Material Options

Expert: Abe Reichental, President and CEO of 3D Systems Corp.  The South Carolina company developed the stereolithography process, and develops materials for its 3D printers, and SLA & SLS systems.

How long until we have close to the same number of material types in rapid prototyping as we do in traditional manufacturing?


I expect significant progress to be made over the next 3-5 years in bringing a growing portfolio of manufacturing-capable integrated AF manufacturing solutions to the market.


The performance and functionality of Additive Fabrication materials has improved a great deal over the past 5 years.  Reflecting on the progress we have made, my sense is that future breakthroughs will arise not just within materials chemistry, but more importantly in integrated process technology and improved per part economy.


We are in the advanced stages of bringing to market a true polypropylene laser sintering material that we believe will expand the suitability and applicability of AF sintered materials in direct manufacturing applications.


What are some technical hurdles still to be overcome?


The majority of the technical hurdles of AF manufactured parts are centered on part accuracy and resolution, useful life, dimensional stability and cost.


Within our selective laser sintering portfolio of system solutions, we believe that we have successfully solved the longevity and dimensional stability challenges for producing plastic and metal parts that exhibit long-lasting performance and have a useful life equivalent to the same familiar engineered plastics and metals used in manufacturing today.


Within our stereolithography family of integrated materials solutions, we believe that more scientific materials chemistry and process integration and optimization breakthroughs are required to make these materials fully suitable for a variety of direct manufacturing applications. However, for the dental and medical industries, we have begun to produce materials whose resolution and accuracy can meet or exceed that of molded or machined parts.


The economic viability of materials used for additive fabrication will be driven by consumption or volumes. We believe that as we achieve comparable consumption rates of AF materials, the cost per part made from them should be eminently competitive with the cost of parts made by traditional manufacturing processes. We have already proven this with certain aerospace, hearing aid, dental and investment casting applications, and as a result, we are reasonably confident in our abilities to replicate this success with other addressable applications.


Do you see this accomplishment eventually making some forms of traditional manufacturing obsolete?


Absolutely. If there is one central lesson that we have learned over the past 5 years, it is that once we are able to bring to bear an integrated solution for a specific manufacturing problem, the traditional solution’s days are numbered. The technologies that we offer have demonstrated their ability to produce parts, either for design or rapid prototyping applications or for direct manufacturing applications, much more efficiently and economically than traditional production techniques.


Our success in transforming the way that leading hearing aid companies manufacture their in-the-ear devices today is but the most recent example of this fundamental shift within industry, and we are setting our sights on digital dentistry as our next immediate addressable application.



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