3D printing advancements aid in organ development and space exploration

The Micro Gravity Foundry will produce tools as well as buildings on the lunar surface and will also aid in meteoric mining processes.

With industrial three-dimensional (3D) printers existing since the early 1980’s, advancements are being made in scientific and manufacturing fields that will have an over-reaching affect on the way research and production is conducted in the 21st century.

Space Age Printing

Earlier this month, a US based company, Deep Space Industries (DSI) released development plans for a 3D printer that would aid in the construction of tools and structures on the lunar or meteoric surface by sustaining its production with minerals in the low gravity environment.

According to Stephen D. Covey, director of research and development at DSI and designer of the Micro Gravity Foundry, three-dimensional printing is a “revolutionary technology”.

“A key difference between this process and the other metal-based three-dimensional printer technologies is that the metal is in a gaseous compound and a laser directs the deposit of the pure metal,” Covey said. “It should work perfectly well in micro-gravity environments, as well as on Earth.”

Covey noted that the MGF is a traditional 3D printer, adding layers of material to build up a complex metal part. But he contended that the MGF functions less like a layering system and more like a “tree growing”. This key ability also allows for MGF’s laser to target any surface, making it one of the most versatile three dimensional printer concepts to date.

Inspiration for the project came after hearing co-founder of DSI, James Wolff describe various three-dimensional printing technologies and problems with each printer’s shortcomings. Covey said that his knowledge of chemistry and physics, as well as lasers with free-association of current technologies resulted in the “eureka” moment.

“Tomorrow’s 3D printers will support additional materials, not just plastic or metal in a single device,” Covey said. “Once we can ‘print’ a complete, working device such as an electric motor or generator, then the process of 3D printing will have truly arrived.”

Stem Cell Printing

Following research studies conducted at Heroit-Watt University in Edinburgh, scientists are using 3D printing to print liver stem cells in hopes of proliferating enough hepatic tissue for use in organ transplantation.

Dr. Jason King, business development manager for Roslin Cellab, which took part in the research, said experiments on the stem cell project took 18 months.

“Now that we have shown that human ES cells can be printed, it will be possible to take advantage of the technology in three-dimensional printing to begin designing and constructing more complex 3D tissues such as mini livers.”

According to King, Roslin Cellab is currently applying for two grants which would help drive current stem cell research forward. If given proper funding, tests to determine the validity of hepatic stem cell development for larger scale tests would start “in July 2013 and last about two to three years”.

With experiments on stem cells highly complex, King noted that problems such as creating a cell structure to support proper organ function and making enough cells while still supplying cells inside three-dimensional tissue with nutrients will all be faced in the next round of research, providing that funding becomes available.

King said that the ability to print stem cells would prove helpful in relevant drug testing since the testing tissue being used would be human, not rodent. The result would reduce scientific dependence on live animal testing.

Check out the links to Deep Space Industries and a TED talk discussing the possible production of medicine with 3D printing on a molecular level. (Video is also embedded on the photograph)


What are your thoughts on 3D printing? Where do you see this technology heading, and who do you believe will be pioneering the movement of additive manufacturing?


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