An Overview of 3D Printing: A Primer For the Brandeis Printathon

This weekend, Brandeis University is having its annual 3D Printathon, a 24 hour competition where student teams will work together to design, print, and present a new product that will solve a problem related to the event’s Mystery Theme. Participants are encouraged to bring their own printers, but Deis3D, Brandeis’s 3D printing club, will be making sure that every team that entered will have at least two printers to work with.

Not only is this event open to high school and college/university students from the Greater Boston Area, Deep Core Data will be there as well! We won’t be competing, geezers that we are, but our experts will be there to help with the judging. In honor of this super cool event, we’ve decided to take a look at the history of 3D printing, and see just how far it has advanced.

This diagram from engineersgarage.com shows how an SLA 3D printer works. As an ultraviolet laser traces a pattern on the surface of a liquid resin, it cures, solidifies, and fuses it to the layer below.

We tend to think of 3D printing as a recent invention, but the first patent for a 3D printer was filed back in 1986 by Charles Hull. His stereolithography apparatus, or SLA, could be considered the model on which much of our 3D printing technology is based on. Hull went on to co-found the 3D Systems Corporation, one of the largest, most well known 3D printing companies today; however, it wasn’t the only 3D printer being worked on at the time.

In 1989, Carl Deckard of the University of Texas received a patent for the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) Rapid Prototyping process, and that year, Scott Crump, co-founder of Stratasys Inc., filed a patent for Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). Although all three forms of 3D printing were largely used industrially, Crump’s FDM has gone on to be the process that the open source printer RepRap uses today.

But it wasn’t until 20 years later that 3D printing started becoming commercially available. In 2004, Dr. Bowyer came up with RepRap, which would be an open source 3D printer capable of self-replicating. The idea and technology was refined over the years, until finally, in 2007 his team managed to come up with working prototypes. Today, RepRap can create 70% of itself; all the other parts are designed to be cheap and widely accessible, so that small communities and individuals all over the globe can have access to 3D printing.

Making 3D printing cheap and accessible was the holy grail of the of the noughties for 3D printer developers. At the time, the cheapest printer on the market still cost over $10,000, which is more than the average person can afford to drop at once (you might as well buy a newish car, for that price). The goal was to make a 3D printer that cost under $5,000, as this was seen by many users and industry insiders as the key to opening up the 3D printer to a wide audience.

In 2009, the BfB RapMan 3D printer was released; in kit form, and based on the RepRap concept. Since then, innovation has been achieved in leaps and bounds, and now we can do things like 3D print new organs or prosthetics.

Okay, so we’re not quite ready to 3D print us up some kidneys and livers, but we’re getting there. Things like ears, bones, and muscles have been successfully implanted in animals, and recently, prosthetic ovaries were implanted in mice who managed to successfully give birth. Right now, the real trick is making organs and blood vessels. Kidneys, the big goal for bioprinting engineers, are a massive network of flesh and tubes, making them extremely complicated to replicate. Still, bioengineers are hopeful.

Anthony Atala: Printing a human kidney

Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Using similar technology, Dr. Atala's young patient Luke Massella received an engineered bladder 10 years ago; we meet him onstage.

So, if we’ve got bones and muscles down, 3D printing an arm or a leg shouldn’t be a big deal, right?

Actually, it isn’t, but it’s hard to say how widespread the practice is yet. The wonderful thing about 3D printing a prosthetic is that it’s cheap, it’s fast, and you can do it from your own home if you know how. Like with the RepRap, there are many open source plans on the internet available so that anyone, from teachers to scout troops can build these prosthetic limbs.

e-NABLE is the organization leading the charge. e-NABLE is a network of volunteers who create 3D printed hands for children who otherwise can’t afford them. The reason they primarily focus on children is that commercially made prosthetics tend to cost anywhere from $30,000 to – $50,000, and children need to have their prosthetics replaced regularly as their bodies grow and change. Most parents simply can’t afford that for one prosthetic, let alone the multitude that a child would need over the course of their development. Compare that to e-NABLE’s 3D printed prosthetics, which cost about $50 to make, and you can see why a parent would chose one over the other.

Plus, they’re completely customizable and made out of brightly colored plastics, making them resemble toys more than medical devices. It’s no wonder why a kid would prefer them to a commercial prosthetic.

While hands tend to be the most prominent form of 3D printed prosthetics, they’re not the only ones on the metaphorical market. Natasha Hope-Simpson collaborated with NovaCad, a 3D Systems reseller, and Shapeways, a 3D printing company, to create a beautiful lace-work leg. Amanda Boxtel has spent the last few years working with EksoBionics as a test pilot for exo-suits that enable wheelchair users to walk, and in 2014, she piloted one that was entirely 3D printed.

They may not look realistic, but to an 8 year old, what’s cooler than having a robot hand?

So between 3D printed organs and limbs, is 3D printing going to turn us into the Robot Overlords we love to fear?

The Robot Overlords just want a hug…

It’s hard to say. The futuristic cybernetics that populate the sci-fi genre are still a little ways off, and the students at Brandeis certainly won’t be printing anything as fancy as a new heart this weekend, although prosthetic hands might still be on the table. But advances, not only to 3D printing, but also to the 3D scanners and sensors used in conjunction with 3D printing, are being made all the time.

If you’re interested in learning more, come check out the 3D Printathon at Brandeis University this weekend. If nothing else, maybe you can help give these brilliant young makers a hand.

2017-06-06T13:58:43+00:00 March 26th, 2017|Company News, Current Technology, Human Connections|

About the Author:

Rhiannon is the head of marketing and documentation services at Deep Core Data. A writer and editor for over 10 years, she is also a professional singer and not quite professional gamer. Her favorite blog posts are about tips and tricks to improving software, writing, and general business.

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