Will 3D Printing Spark a Home Manufacturing Revolution?

As rapid prototyping technologies become more affordable and accessible, we could be creating more and more of the products we use every day in our homes. 

What's the Big Idea?


It may sound like science fiction, but some of us may soon be manufacturing products right in our very own homes. "Think about collectibles, customized gifts, interior decorating elements, customized headphones or earphones for cellular devices. Think about lighting fixtures—you might want to start a design shop," says Abe Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems. "The limit is really only your imagination."

From Invisalign braces for straightening your teeth to the bodies of two-passenger hybrid vehicles, additive manufacturing processes such as stereolithography and selective laser sintering are already being used by manufacturers to create high-end retail-quality parts and products. As these rapid prototyping technologies become more affordable and accessible, Reichental predicts that they may be a solution for bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

Invented in 1986 by 3D Systems co-founder Chuck Hull, stereolithography in its simplest form uses a computer-controlled UV laser to form a complete three-dimensional object out of a vat of liquid UV-curable photopolymer resin. A stereolithography machine "prints" a three-dimensional computer file by directing its laser over the liquid photopolymer, one thin layer at a time. Exposure to the laser solidifies the pattern traced on the resin. Once a cross-section of the object is exposed, the machine lowers the hardened layer and a resin-filled blade sweeps across the cross-section, re-coating it with fresh layer of liquid. On this new liquid surface, a new layer pattern is traced, adhering to the previous layer. The final result is a complete three-dimensional object precisely resembling the original computer file.

Watch the demo video below from Shapeways to get a sense of how an additive manufacturing process works.*

What's the Significance?

Though stereolithography was originally invented to expedite the prototyping process (allowing engineers to quickly print and examine their designs), analogous manufacturing processes have since been created to produce durable, end-user products out of nylon, high-grade plastics, composites, and even metals like stainless steel and aluminum. This has allowed 3D Systems and their competitors to implement three-dimensional printing technology to create parts for everything from the U.S. Navy's F-18 fighter jet to customized fittings for Rolls Royce cars.

"The limiting factor today is not the cost of systems and materials. It's not the performance of the end products. It's a lack of content," says Reichental. "We are actively seeking ways to reduce the level of expertise that's required to design for our machines. We're also actively looking for ways to create exchanges and platforms for design so that we can really empower entrepreneurs to partake in this digital manufacturing revolution."

At the moment, a consumer can buy a desktop three-dimensional printer similar to the desktop 3D printer pictured above for about $1,000. These are often used by schools to design and print objects for educational projects. A higher-end professional-grade machine can cost over $60,000, and enables a consumer to produce retail-quality products like customized jewelry, hearing aids, lighting fixtures and customized doorknobs. Production materials can cost anywhere from two to eight dollars per a cubic inch. "Think about action figures—people could actually print their Second Life characters," says Cathy Lewis, Vice President of Global Marketing at 3D Systems. "Think about when you're at home and you lose the pieces to a puzzle or a board game. In the future you'll just be able to make replacements."

Given new technologies like Google Goggles, a service which enables smart phone users to search the Web using the cameras on their mobile devices, it isn't a stretch to consider a world in which design software allows people to snap a picture of an object and then use it to recreate it using an additive manufacturing process.

"Let's allow people to access and capture 3D data through cameras instead of trying to create it from scratch," says Reichental. "Our vision is that we would act as a catalyst to democratize access to these tools and accelerate the use of these tools." Copyright issues aside, one can only imagine the kind of possibilities the further improvement of rapid prototyping technology will present in the future.

The Impact on Labor Markets

Reichental predicts the cost of outsourced labor in emerging markets like China and India will continue to rise along with the growth of their middle classes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both employment and compensation costs in China increased rapidly from 2002 to 2006. Employment in China increased by more than ten percent in just four years, while compensation costs increased more than 40 percent. "We believe this is an opportunity for recreating a reverse flow, bringing manufacturing activities and jobs back to the United States," says Reichental.

It may seem a far-fetched to predict that thousands of entrepreneurs across America will install professional-grade rapid prototyping machines in their garages and begin manufacturing custom-made products. But if the costs of rapid prototyping technology continue to decline, it's hard to see why future generations will have to go to the store to buy anything made of solid plastic or metal. Why buy cutlery and plastic cups if you could just download the design and make it yourself? Plastic water bottles, shower curtains, simple toys, Tupperware, and all types of kitsch. The list goes on.

More Resources

Shapeways implements 3D printing technology to manufacture and sell mass customized products online.*

— You can buy a 3D printer that makes "almost anything" up to 4"x4"x6" from MakerBot

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  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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