The promise of additive manufacturing (AM) has been there since the technology was first invented in the late 1980s and early 1990s (depending on process), but it hasn’t been until the last decade or so that AM has really started to gather momentum. The rise of sites like Thingiverse and Sculpteo (covered by us here) no doubt have a small part to play in this, but is the bread-and-butter of AM, namely prototyping, that is mostly responsible.
A report by IBISWorld on the state of AM looks for revenue to grow over the next five years at an average annualized rate of 7.2% to total $662.4 million. Losses caused by the recession have begun to subside, with increases of 11.6% in 2010 and 18.3% in 2011. As manufacturers continue to rebound from the recession, IBISWorld expects AM to continue to grow.
For many years people expected the future of medical technology would probably have something to do with cloning. Growing new organs from cells harvested from the patient would make rejection unlikely, and whole stockpiles of human parts could be created to save lives. Now it seems more likely that AM will provide the organs that social mores and certain types of paranoia combined to keep cloning on the sidelines.
A number of institutes around the world are experimenting with bioprinting. The process uses inkjet based 3D printers and an “ink” made of human cells (as with cloning, using the patient’s own cells are the best bet) mixed with a dissolvable gel, often cellulose. From there, the process is similar to other AM techniques. The printer puts down a layer, which is then cured with heat, chemicals or UV light, before moving on to the next layer. Finally, the printed part is placed in a bioreactor, where it is subjected to the processes it is meant to facilitate (blood is pumped through heart valves, liquid through a liver, etc.).