Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is the process of making three-dimensional objects of varying complexity. The printers utilize digital models, usually some sort of CAD blueprint, in order to render an object. Additive manufacturing takes schematics from CAD software and uses a binding material to build slices, or cross-sections, in order to construct the object. A standard interface between CAD software and the actual machines is the STL file format. An STL file presents the shape of an assembly using triangular facets. In order to “print” an object, the printer reads the .stl file and produces layers of liquid, powder, or sheet material to build the model from a series off cross-sections. The layers are joined together or fused to create the final shape. In the simplest terms, that is how it works.
3D printing is not as new as it sounds, but it is only recently that the technology has been able to scale well enough to produce objects that are more than novelties. Dot matrix printing has been with us since 1964, laser printing since 1969, and inkjet printing since 1976. 3D printing has been an established technology since 1986, but it seems recently there has been an explosion in applications that extend beyond simple assemblies composed of one type of material.
Already moving beyond the realm of simple manufacturing, 3D printing is impacting biotechnology:
While scientists have previously had success in 3D printing a range of human stem cell cultures developed from bone marrow or skin cells, a team from Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University claims to be the first to print the more delicate, yet more flexible, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). As well as allowing the use of stem cells grown from established cell lines, the technology could enable the creation of improved human tissue models for drug testing and potentially even purpose-built replacement organs.
In the near-future, organ transplants as currently performed could become a thing of the past. Customized replacement organs could be produced from a patient’s own cells, thus bypassing the need to obtain an organ and the risk that goes along with transplanation.
As 3D printing penetrates additional markets, and the ability to interface with the technology becomes more streamlined and flexible, it leaves one to ponder the endless opportunities to explore how users may interface with these devices. Additionally, one is left considering how their usability may be enhanced to the extent that their usefullness could extend beyond a narrow range of experts to a much broader selection of society. In order for the full value of these machines to be realized, visual designers and present-day experts on interface design will need to consider how biotechnologists go about their day producing lungs, as well as how small-batch manufacturers of jeans in Los Angeles perform their work.