After the widespread fear and loathing generated by Defense Distributed's Liberator pistol a few weeks back, 3D printing really needed some good publicity. This week's headlines have obliged, with a hat-trick of jaw dropping, mind expanding and heart warming stories that testify to how the 3D printer could make life better for people across the globe.
The Space Age Food Printer
It started on Tuesday, with the announcement that NASA had handed over a six month grant of $125,000 to Systems & Material Research Corporation to develop and produce the first 3D food printer in the world. Though NASA are hoping it will provide the rations for hungry astronauts on long space voyages, Anjan Contractor, the lead engineer on the project, has an even greater ambition: to end world hunger.
As food prices continue to rise, many economists are voicing serious concern regarding worldwide food shortages in the near future. Contractor believes his invention will help people get their food from alternative, commonly available sources such as grass, lupine seeds and duckweed. Individual users may even be able to configure their 3D printer with their own, personal dietary needs, so they always get the nutrition their body needs. According to Contractor this will "˜change the perception of what people see as food' democratising the process of food supply.
The Superhuman Ear
While the potential to create organs with 3D printers is old news, what makes the ear printed off by scientists at Princeton University this week so special is that it combines electronics with printed cells and nanoparticles. Oh yes, and it can hear frequencies a million times higher than those outdated lugs on either side of your head.
That's right "“ these ears are capable of Superman-levels of hearing. While this development might one day help the hard of hearing, head researcher Michael McAlpine's main interest is good, old fashioned forward thinking. "The idea of this was," he told online news site Mashable "can you take a normal, healthy, average human and give them a superpower that they wouldn't normally have?"
The Biodegradable Airway
The best 3D printing story of the week, however, was left until last. Three month old Kaiba Gionfriddo was eating with his parents at a restaurant in Youngstown, Ohio when, suddenly, he stopped breathing. Though his parent did not know it, Kaiba suffers from tracheobronchomalacia, a rare condition that often goes undiagnosed in newborn babies but can be fatal if untreated. Kaiba's father managed to revive him using CPR but the breathing problems continued over the following weeks, stopping his breath every day. This is because traceobronchomalacia weakens a baby's airway to such an extent that it collapses during heavy breathing or coughing. After a month, Kaiba was hooked up to a breathing machine at Akron Children's Hospital and the doctor's prognosis was extremely grim. The odds of Kaiba ever leaving Akron were set between slim and none.
When Kaiba's desperate mother April heard about research taking place in a Michigan hospital into the creation of artificial airway splints, she immediately got in contact with the doctors involved, Glen Green and Scott Hollister. The urgency of the situation meant the doctors got clearance to create a tracheal splint using biodegradable polyester and a 3D printer. It was a method they had been considering for a while but nobody knew for sure if it could work.
Green and Hollister took a CT scan of the airway and designed a custom splint that took into account the exact shape of Kaiba's throat. They then printed it off on a 3D printer and sewed it around Kaiba's airway. The results were immediate. Kaiba's lungs began to fill and release air right there on the operating table. Three months later and Kaiba is doing great, without a single breathing problem since the operation. As the splint itself is biodegradable, it will be reabsorbed by Kaiba's body before healthy tissue grows in its place and allow his skeleton to develop without obstruction.
While the debate about the potential dangers of 3D printing is a necessary one, it is important to temper it with this crucial point: Though there are plenty of people out there determined to use this newest of technologies for destructive purposes, there are many, many more using it to feed the hungry, heal the sick and save lives.