3D printers are now being utilised for a variety of different mediums; in fact, there seems to be no limit to their potential.
In Britain, they are being used to create the ultimate chocolate gift by a company called ChocEdge. The company, which grew out of a University of Exeter project in 2012, can create a unique sculpture of your face using layers of dark, milk or white chocolate, based on a photographic image.
"Everyone loves chocolate so that’s why we’ve tried to make it easy and accessible for mainstream consumers," said Dr Liang Hao from the University of Exeter, who founded Choc Edge.
The chocolate creations are made by depositing very thin two-dimensional layers of melted chocolate, around 0.05mm thick, onto a substrate to build up the three-dimensional shape. Traditional methods of chocolate sculpturing rely on expensive molding tools, a fact that limits the potential to create very complex designs, but the new method means that that practically any design is possible using the same technology.
The uses for 3D printers does not stop at the creation of chocolate artworks, as it seems that they can be employed in the production of an astonishing array of products, from Christmas trees to replacement parts for gas turbines, reducing repair times for gas turbine burners by up to 90 per cent. 3D printing is easier, cheaper and often produces a superior product: from 2016, GE Aviation will start printing fuel nozzles for Boeing 747 Max and Airbus A320neo aircraft engines. The new "printed" versions are more durable than those made by traditional means, as a 3D printed fuel nozzle has five times the lifespan of the traditionally manufactured product and weighs 75 per cent lighter, according to Greg Morris of GE Aviation’s additive development centre.
In the medical arena, 3D printers are already used to make components for hip replacements, hearing aids and dental work, but is it possible that their capabilities could be extended to generate human tissue?
It appears so, as San Diego-based bio-printing company Organovo intends to unveil the world's first printed organ -- a human liver -- next year. This possibility could revolutionise the transplant industry, as around 18 people die every day waiting for an organ transplant.
The technology works in the same way as with any other medium, but instead uses layers of human tissue cells - in this case, the hepatocytes that make up liver tissue - instead of chocolate or metal.
The procedure is extremely complicated as the hepatocytes must be combined with a complex array of other cells in order to create a functioning living organ, but the researchers at Organovo report that they have been able to combine fibroblasts and endothelial cells to produce tissue with functioning vascular networks and good cell viability.Bringing the cells to life presents a slightly more challenging problem for the manufacturers, as manufacturing the vascular system needed to provide it with life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients is an incredibly difficult endeavour, and cells may even die before the printing procedure is completed.
Organovo believes that it has managed to surmount this issue in principle, however, and are confident that they will be able to create viable human organs suitable for transplant.
"We have achieved thicknesses of greater than 500 microns, and have maintained liver tissue in a fully functional state with native phenotypic behavior for at least 40 days," said Mike Renard, Organovo's executive vice president of commercial operations.
This is printing on an unimaginably small scale, as a micron is one-millionth of a meter, with the finished tissue measuring only the thickness of five sheets of printer paper, which is approximately 500 microns.
Initially, the first "printed" organs will be used for laboratory research purposes only, to further medical and drug-related studies, but as the development of a new drug costs around £1.2 billion and takes 12 years, the new technology could still be of enormous benefit. The use of printed organs in transplant operations is still a way off and extensive tests would need to be conducted before they were declared suitable for clinical purposes, and Organovo have therefore been cautious when commenting on the potential uses for the new tailor-made tissue.
"It is too early to speculate on the breadth of applications that tissue engineering will ultimately deliver or on the efficacy that will be achieved," Renard said. He suggested that full testing and development of the tissue, followed by a thorough review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was a process that could take between three to ten years.
The potential for bespoke transplant organs is now there, however, and to add an incentive to manufacturers, the Methusalah Foundation, a Springfield, Va.-based not-for-profit that supports regenerative medicine research, has offered a $1million prize to the company that manages to produce the first viable organ.