“When we first started 3-D printing all those years ago, I didn’t expect it to become mainstream for a long time.” – Chuck Hull

Chuck Hull is the person who first invented stereolithography also called 3D printing in the year 1983 by developing the first commercial 3D printer. The first part ever made using this technology was an eyewash cup!

Now, after more than 30 years since its invention, the technology is being actively used by a plethora of industries in their production process. This is majorly due to the advantages it brings to the table – customization and flexibility in designing, rapid design, and production, minimization of waste, and cost-effectiveness. The tech is especially beneficial when the final product design is complex and involves too many intricate parts for proper functioning. One such industry where the functioning of individual parts is of utmost importance is the field of aerospace because here, part failures could lead to fatalities. This is why aircraft manufacturers are moving to professional-grade 3D printing to produce different parts of the plane including the spares. It is also widely used by automotive manufacturers like Koenigsegg and Audi to design parts for their cars,  architects, and in making jewellery and much more.

3D printing has other exciting and futuristic applications too! One example of such an unconventional application is the creation of artificial coral reefs in Bahrain by casting  sandstone-like material into shapes similar to the corals. Along with the shape, the nature of these artificial reefs was very similar to the natural calcium carbonate found in natural reefs. They encourage the free-floating polyps to regenerate the damaged reef and in turn revive the ecosystem.

Another field of biology that has benefited from 3D printing is medicine where it is used for various applications. A few years ago, a Dachshund by the name of Patches, was the first dog that received a 3D-printed implant. Patches had an aggressive brain tumour which needed to be operated immediately, however, this meant a part of her skull had to be removed. Researchers realized 3D printing could offer the scope of personalization in design, and used it to develop a customized titanium skull as a replacement for Patches. Kudos to the tech, Patches lives on!

It may sound like a work of fiction but 3D printing is now being used to develop tissues and organs too. The field of 3D Bioprinting, although nascent, has a promising future ahead. It utilizes organic materials and cells called bioinks to “print” the final tissue. As of yet, researchers have been successful in printing simple tissues such as heart valves and blood vessels. However, the field faces challenges when it comes to printing complex organs such as lungs because of two main reasons. First, the non-availability of appropriate biocompatible materials to make bioinks, and second, the technical limitations of the printer.

Recognizing these challenges, scientists and researchers at the Nanomedicine Research Group are continuously developing non-toxic bioinks which also possess adequate rheological properties. Moreover, innovative Indian companies such as Avay Biosciences are making great strides to overcome the technicalities and developing 3D bioprinters for tissue printing, orthopaedic implants, and pharmaceutical printing.

We are living in exciting times and witnessing innovations that once sounded too good to be true. In the coming decades, advancements in the field of 3D bioprinting would be a huge boon to society as it will reduce the burden of organ donation and also provide means to develop accurate in-vitro models for drug-based investigations. 

Written by – Parth Choudhari, Science Communicator, NRG