You Want to 3D Print What

By KIM BELLARD

You know we’re living in the 21st century when people are 3D printing chicken and cooking it with lasers.  They had me at “3D printing chicken.”  

An article in NPJ Science of Food explains how scientists combined additive manufacturing (a.k.a, 3D printing) of food with “precision laser cooking,” which achieves a “higher degree of spatial and temporal control for food processing than conventional cooking methods.”  And, oh, by the way, the color of the laser matters (e.g., red is best for browning).   

Very nice, but wake me when they get to replicators…which they will.  Meanwhile, other people are 3D printing not just individual houses but entire communities.   It reminds me that we’ve still not quite realized how revolutionary 3D printing can and will be, including for healthcare. 

The New York Times profiled the creation of a village in Mexico using “an 11-foot-tall three-dimensional printer.”  The project, being built by New Story, a nonprofit organization focused on providing affordable housing solutions, Échale, a Mexican social housing production company, and Icon, a construction technology company, is building 500 homes.  Each home takes about 24 hours to build; 200 have already been built.

Here’s a video of the process:

No one knows how durable the houses will be over time, but they’ve already withstood a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, something that would have been appreciated, for example, in Haiti.  Most importantly, they’re providing homes for people who might have otherwise been homeless or living in sub-standard conditions.

Brett Hagler, New Story’s chief executive and co-founder, told The Times: “We know that being able to build more quickly, without sacrificing quality, is something that we have to make huge leaps on if we’re going to even make a dent on the issue of housing in our lifetime.”  

“We’re really looking at the biggest opportunities to have both impact and efficiency gains,” New Story co-founder Alexandria Lafci added.  “There is a very significant gain in speed that you get with 3-D printing, without sacrificing quality.”

There are 3D-printed housing projects all over the world, including Austin (TX), Rancho Mirage (CA), and Tallahassee (FL).   The Tallahassee developers boasted: “Make no mistake, these houses are not your average test models. The finished product is far superior in strength, durability, and efficiency.”   

Faster, cheaper, more durable – what’s not to like?

Canada’s first 3D printed house, the so-called Fibonacci House, features curved walls, just because the builders could.  “So now, architectural features that are exciting or adding aesthetics can be done for virtually no cost comparison,” said Ian Cornishin, president of the company that built it.

Here’s their video:

That company, Twente Additive Manufacturing, is now teaming up with non-profit World Housing to build a 3D printed community called Sakura Place.  World Housing’s Don McQuaid says: “Our belief is that technology is going to be the solution for homelessness, and we believe that everyone deserves a home.” 

The Ruler of Dubai is such a big fan that he has decreed that 25% of all construction – not just houses – are to be constructed by 3D printing technology by 2030, “to promote Dubai as a regional and global hub for the use of 3D printing technologies.”  

It’s a new world for construction.  Housing expert Brad Hudson noted: “The housing industry hasn’t changed its overall methods of building homes in the past 50 years.  Innovations like 3D and modular construction will start to gain popularity.”  

So it will be for healthcare.  I’ve written before about the 3D printing of prescription drugs, which offers the intriguing, if not scary, possibility of printing your own meds at home, but that’s just one example of how healthcare is starting to realize 3D printing’s potential.

Scientists at the Israel Institute of Technology have 3D printed a blood vessel network, to support implanted tissue, something that had not been achieved through conventional approaches.  The researchers believe it “is a versatile and adaptable technique that may cement a new path toward fully lab-grown patient-specific tissues.”  

Here’s their video:

We’re not yet at the point of 3D printing human organs for transplants, but we’re close, and in the meantime, we are 3D printing prosthetics.   The NIH says:

3D-printable prosthetics are changing the face of medicine, as engineers and physicians are able to develop prosthetics that are fully customized to the wearer. Consumer 3D printing is leading to an even bigger revolution: “DIY” assistive devices that can be printed by virtually anyone, anywhere.

Imagine that world.  

Some experts think the 3D printing market for healthcare is already a billion-dollar market and will be a $6 billion one by 2030, which seems like not nearly enough.  Where is healthcare’s Ruler of Dubai, demanding 25% of healthcare construction (or manufacturing) using 3D printing by 2030?

3D printing helped lessen the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic when demand skyrocketed at the same time supply chains cratered, but not fast enough and not in enough quantity.  Supply chains are again teetering,  but if healthcare organizations have scaled up their 3D printing capabilities to prepare for shortages, I missed it. 

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There are really two types of thinking we need to be practicing here. One is what are the things we are doing now that could be done at least as well using 3D printing?  It’s like building houses using 3D printing; they’re not reinventing houses, but they are reinventing how they’re built, in hopes of a faster, cheaper way.  Ideally, it could lead to more affordable houses, and perhaps make a big dent in homelessness.  

E.g., in healthcare, more affordable, better fitting prostheses are made much faster.  

The second is what are the things we can’t do now that could be done with 3D printing?  The work in human organs, tissues, or blood vessels fall into this category, but shouldn’t be the limit of the category.   

It’s easy enough to see how 3D printing may be one of the things that helps us address the problem of homelessness/affordable housing.  How can it similarly help us address the problem of people lacking access to health care/affordable health care?  



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