In recent decades, 3D printing started making waves in the world of manufacturing, with pundits around the globe hailing the procedure as a harbinger of the age of hyper-personalized manufacturing and mass customization. Indeed, one cannot deny the universal appeal of 3D printing, which is arguably one of the most important innovations that have been achieved in manufacturing in recent years.
This additive method of manufacturing, which employs precision linear stages and other motion control components, is accomplished through the layer-by-layer deposition of a material to create three-dimensional objects. It has been proven to have so many potential applications that these days, we wonder not about what can’t be achieved through 3D printing, but what else could be done with it.
Some people may approach 3D printing with disinclination due the fact that there are those who explore the possibility of using it to manufacture weapons and instruments of death without much thought about its legal and moral implications. Despite this, however, we can rest easy knowing that there are also people who are alternatively employing this technology to bring more value to the world. From helping animals to improving the lives of other people, here are some of the best examples of how 3D printing is being used by innovators to do good to those around them.
3D-Printed Prosthetics for Animals
The animal kingdom boasts a mind-boggling variety of species, whose millions of years of evolution have mostly ensured that they are well-equipped to meet the challenges presented by their environments. Nevertheless, nature still sometimes make mistakes, and this results in countless animals being born with congenital physical conditions that prevent them from living their lives to the fullest. Sometimes, animals also find themselves caught in unfortunate accidents, which often means they end up with debilitating injuries and deformities that likewise cause untold discomfort and suffering.
Thankfully, some of these animals get a second lease on life due to custom 3D printing. The internet is rife with stories of such animals being successfully rehabilitated as their disfigurements or injuries are repaired with 3D-printed body parts. There’s Jary, a great pied hornbill from Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park, whose cancer-stricken upper bill was replaced in 2018 with a 3D-printed analogue. There’s also Fred, a tortoise in Brazil who was given a 3D-printed prosthetic shell after his natural one was burned in a bushfire. It was the tortoise’s last hurdle after surviving bouts of pneumonia and 45 days without food in the aftermath of the fire.
Most of the time, the type of animals that receive 3D-printed limbs and other body parts are companion animals like dogs and cats. Take for instance the whippet Romina, who, in 2016 received new, 3D-printed articulated prosthetic legs from specialists at the Universidad del Valle de Mexico’s Veterinary Hospital in Mexico City. The dog lost both of her front legs in 2013 following a lawnmower accident in Brazil. There’s also Cyrano the cat, who, in 2012 became the first feline in the United States to receive a knee-replacement surgery using a 3D-printed implant. The cat was aided by doctors and engineers at the North Carolina State University after cancer rendered one of his hind legs useless.
3D-Printed Innovations in Human Medicine
Similar 3D-printed prosthetics and medical implants are also being produced for people, and these days, they represent millions of dollars in savings for patients, in addition to improved overall healthcare and quality of life for them.
Low-cost 3D-printed prosthetics, in particular, are having a tremendous impact among people in need in developing countries and even among resource-deprived patients in wealthy countries. Customized medical implants, medical aids, and protective devices, on the other hand, are providing us with a good preview of a more patient-specific paradigm of healthcare in the future.
But perhaps the ultimate holy grail of 3D printing as it relates to human medicine is the ability to print working human organs in the future. The idea of tissue “bioprinting” was pioneered in 2003 by Dr. Thomas Boland of the Clemson University in South Carolina, who studied the feasibility of inkjet printing human cells. Today, scientists are also 3D printing fabricated structures made of synthetic materials that closely resemble the structures of natural human tissues and organs. One recent example is the microscopic 3D-printed blood vessel analogue produced by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, which mimics the structure of natural blood vessels.
The goal now is to go beyond printing cell matrices to be able to re-create living organs via 3D printing, complete with blood vessels and other important structures. If this is accomplished in the near future, this will likely solve the perennial global problem of organ shortage, resulting in our species’ unprecedented ability to save the lives of millions of our own.
3D printing is a technology that, a few years ago, many would have considered a domain of science fiction or even magic. Today, we’re able to do all these wonderful things for people and animals alike, simply because of this relatively humble idea that was developed in just the last 40 years.