Printing your movie ticket or boarding pass is nice, but what if you could print an action figure of yourself? Or print a new cell phone antenna? Or a protein cage to trap individual living cells?
You can—if you can afford the right equipment.
"Printing" technology has quietly evolved over the past few decades to allow users to create—on demand, from files—everything from gun parts to DNA. Here are six examples.
1. Print a Pose(able)
Harvard researcher Moritz Bacher developed an algorithm that should induce glee in children and adult hobbyists alike. His code takes any video game avatar and turns it into an instant, poseable action figure. Pick your avatar, click print, and the algorithm figures out what kinds of joints should go where. This opens two possibilities. First, it lets World of Warcraft players get poseables of their in-game characters. Second, it lets kids build their own, custom action figures.
2. Scrawling Circuits
If you happen across one of Dimatix Fujifilm’s printers and it’s building a metallic pattern on a sheet of plastic, it just might be a cell phone antenna—or, really, any kind of circuit. The system uses metals in suspended solution to print just about any kind of circuit you need. Customers use the Dimatix printer for rapid prototyping.
3. Mini-me (or you!)
Remember those photo booths people visited before everyone had a camera-enabled cell phone? The Omote 3-D does them one better. The booth combines a 3D scanner with a 3D printer to xerox its customers. Pay your money, step inside and choose a pose. Moments later, the machine produces a tiny, full-color statue of you.
4. Tiny Cages
Yes, any 3D printer can build a cage, but NanoInk Inc. sells a system that can print with individual proteins. The system lines up the molecular chains to build microscopic cages to hold individual living cells. Why would anyone do that? Ruby Lam, a scientist with the company, said that researchers pen off the cells so that they can test chemicals and medications without worrying about cell-to-cell interactions.
5. Pre-medicated implants
Human bodies have an irritating habit of rejecting things you put in them. Uncle Joe may really need that stent to keep his artery open, but his body doesn’t want to play nice. Doctors usually respond to this problem with immunosuppressants, but they have the downside of, well, suppressing the immune system. MicroFab Technologies Inc. has a printer that solves that problem. Their system can print tiny 3D structures with just about any kind of material you like. This has allowed them to print a stent with embedded medicine that prevents rejection locally, without wrecking the rest of Uncle Joe’s body.
6. Print Life
For years, scientists have demonstrated their ability to manipulate things on a small scale, but researchers can now print with DNA. Harvard researcher George Church showed off what he’s capable of last year by printing a draft of his book in DNA. Not long after that, bio entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that his company is working on a printer that could print vaccines on demand.