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3D or even 4D printing - what does the future hold? 08.05.13

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We’ve long had a 3D printer here at Sanders. Now that the world’s buzzing with recent developments in ‘at home’ 3D printing, it’s gone from being a vague and incomprehensible topic, to something that everyone wants to know about.

We use our 3D printer - or prototype machine - on a weekly basis to prove concepts, to test components, to create prototypes. It’s been a revelation in the industry, allowing product designers to progress to the prototype stage much sooner in the design process and overcome unforeseen hurdles, traditionally found a lot further down the line.

When I first came to Sanders, 3D printing was something that I didn’t really grasp immediately, but actually when it’s explained clearly, the concept is pretty simple. A 3D printer is hooked up to a computer, much like a traditional printer, which sends the print information from a specialised program. The item is then printed using material as opposed to ink. In our case, a solid object conforming to the specified dimensions is built up via very thin layers of plastic.

Recently there’s been a lot of noise about at home 3D printing, holding it up as a kind of second industrial revolution. It’s undoubtedly overhyped, but the concept is intriguing. Costs have come down so far that sales of 3D desktop printers the size of microwaves have been growing rapidly. Of course, it can’t compete with the volumes, speed and economies of scale possible with industrial manufacturing, but it could change the way consumers get hold of certain goods. Imagine printing a new toothbrush instead of buying one at the shops.

The technology has already transcended consumer manufacturing - today things like prosthetic limbs are being created. But what truly boggles the mind is the idea of actual human limbs being ‘printed’ via the same process, using layers of human tissue.

And that’s without even getting started on this guy: Skylar Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab and one of those at the forefront of 4D print research, likes to say things like, “We are looking at the ability to programme physical and biological materials to change shape, change properties and even compute outside of silicon-based matter.” To put it in practical terms, his best example is the use of new programmable materials that could be used in, say, water pipe infrastructure.

To put it in his words: “Water pipes are fixed capacity, so if the environment changes, the ground moves or demand changes, we have to dig it all up and start from scratch. With the use of programmable materials that build and adapt themselves, the pipes could be designed to expand and contract, and even pulsate to drive water through them, mimicking the natural process of peristalsis in the human intestine. It’s like robotics, only without wires or motors.”

Tibbits sees a future where this technology could be used to build anything from furniture to bikes, cars and even buildings, the process of self-assembly stimulated by different energy sources, from heating to shaking, gravity to pneumatics. Blimey. Suddenly 3D printing sounds very simple indeed, doesn’t it?

Even more fascinating is the work going on at American Universities using Autodesk’s software to build nano-scale protein structures in a process of “DNA origami”. In a step that could one day do away with invasive chemotherapy treatments, researchers have developed a nano-robot built from DNA strands, in the form of a clamshell basket, with double-helix “locks” that are only opened when the robot comes into contact with specific cancerous cells. When the clamshell is opened, it releases specifically targeted antibodies that halt the cells’ growth, mimicking the behaviour of our natural white blood cells.