The Future of Printing

Growing up, I never thought of the possibility of three-dimensional printing. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around when you’re watching your teacher physically crank out mimeographed carbon copies.

As an adult, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the technology of 3D printing develop. There are the “wow”-worthy designs, of course. But what I find most fascinating are the 3D products that are integrated into other disciplines in a way that changes the playing field.

Assistive Innovations

The other day I ran across a list of winners for the 2013 James Dyson Award. Dyson, of bagless vacuum fame, presents awards each year for excellence in design engineering among university students. The international winner walks away with about $60,000 in prize money for designing something that “solves a problem.”

Titan Arm

Three members of the team (Liz Beattie, Nick McGill, and Nick Parrotta) pose with the Titan Arm.

This year’s winner, a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania, took home the Dyson Award for their work on the Titan Arm, an upper body exoskeleton that was originally developed to augment lifting ability for those whose job entails repetitive heavy lifting. The applications of the Titan Arm have extended to healthcare – to improve physical therapy, mobility, and perhaps prosthetics. And, notably, the Titan Arm was developed using quite a bit of 3D printing. According to Dyson, “Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling.”

If you have a couple hundred thousands of dollars to blow, an exoskeleton might top your Christmas list this year, but for folks without the hefty bank account, it’s worth noting that the Titan Arm cost just $2,000 to make – in large part because of its reliance on 3D-printed parts.

Printing at UTARI

Clockwise from top left: Viper Si2 printer, Connex Objet 500 printer, and 3D printed surgical simulator.

Our work here at UTARI has relied frequently on the precision, capabilities and cost-efficiency of 3D printing. Our Knee Model Surgical Simulator – a low-cost arthroscopic surgical simulation model – was produced with the help of our Connex Objet 500 and Viper Si2 3D printers. The detail of the ligaments, bones, and menisci is incredible, making the simulated surgical experience particularly realistic – even to trained surgeons. And the cost break is indeed “compelling” – a few thousand dollars in comparison to virtual simulators that push a price tag sometimes up to $100,000.

The use of 3D printing for fabrication in medical and healthcare applications in-and-of itself isn’t groundbreaking, but the way in which people are beginning to test the boundaries of 3D printing capabilities certainly seems to be. The detail that is now available in the printing process lends itself to more and more complex applications, so the boundaries are likely to keep moving.

What do you think the next 3D printing “wow-worthy” breakthrough will be? In five or ten years, how do you think we’ll be using the technology?

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