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Need a new skull? Just Ctrl+P

Most of us are familiar with a printer. We buy paper, we buy ink, we place it in the printer and we then print…in 2D. But gone are the days of ancient 2D printing (this tech is over 500 hundred years old!!). Last year I watched a really interesting series on the National Geographic channel called The Known Universe, and in this particular episode they were discussing the advancement of 3D printing. The first thing that came to mind when I heard about 3D printing is the fact that I had no idea about 3D printing or that it could actually exists. It sounds like something from Star Trek, right? In fact I think it actually is.

So what is this Star Trek-esq type of technology?

Put simply, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is a rather novel technique that essentially produces a real 3D model of a specified pre-designed 3D digital model. What happens is 2D layers are created and then added together on top of each other to create a 3D composite model, akin to putting single sheets of paper on top of each other. However, instead of using a conventional material such a paper, a 3D printer can use a vast array of materials from which it can assemble composite 3D objects. The materials cover a lot of different criteria, some materials are more thermo-resistant where as others are more bio-compatible. Despite their difference, all materials used begin as a sort of pre-engineered powder that is then fused together using a resin like substance.

What we can create from this kind of technology depends on the mind conceiving the design. Anything from toys to prosthetics could potentially be created. The series piece makes a clever point when they try to answer the question of how would an astronaut construct a tool if one already in space broke. They answer this with 3D printing. I wont allude too much more, but what I will do is attach a link to the video at the bottom of this piece. I strongly urge you to check it out.

The footwear giant, New Balance has recently adopted 3D printing technology to create new ultra customised footwear for elite athletes. Its unsure when this kind of product will reach the mass consumer market, but when it does, I have a feeling its going to be a major shoe in. Mind the pun.

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A 3D printed anatomically customised shoe plate. Source: Gizmodo Australia

Another really important application is, and I mentioned it above, in prosthetics. A US man who chooses to remain anonymous had 75% of his skull replaced with a 3D printed anatomical implant made by the company Oxford Performance Materials. The procedure involved the patient to undergo head scans in order to create an accurate digital model of his remaining head. Then by using computer-modelling software, a digital framework for the portion of his skull that was missing was created and then printed in PEKK, an ultra high performance polymer. This artificial structure, officially dubbed OsteoFab Patient Specific Cranial Device was surgically attached to the patient’s head. The 3D printing tech is revolutionary in its own right, but this kind of application is light years ahead of what is currently the standard.

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Scan and digital framework of a reconstructed skull. Source: Google creative commons

The applications of 3D printing are endless. Its just another shining example of human ingenuity.

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