Triple aim

Once just used to fabricate spare parts from plastic, 3D printing technology is now being applied to living human tissues.

What does 3D printing hold for healthcare?

I was listening not long ago to All Things Considered, to a story about a new breed of 3D sensor-equipped cameras  -  artificial eyes, essentially, that can make out shape and form, navigating space and gauging its dimensions.

With them, said NPR correspondent Steve Henn, it will soon be possible to take "detailed, accurate, 3D models of your house, just by walking through and filming your home with a mobile device. You could take that model with you when you go shopping for a couch. You could send that to a 3D printer and create a dollhouse for your kid."

The sensors sound cool, for sure. But it was the matter-of-factness with which Henn mentioned 3D printing that really struck me.

I first wrote about 3D printing about three years ago. At first blush, the technology seemed fantastical. Actual objects, conjured out of thin air? It didn't seem that long ago that dot matrix 2D printers were the pinnacle of technology!

The same principle is at work, just with an added dimension: the machines take digital data and then, by slowly moving materials such as plastic, metal or even glass, back and forth, layer by layer, are able to built a replica, based on that data, that exists in the real world.

Industrial titans like Honeywell and Boeing use the technology to build parts for their machines. But at that time, the technology was even moving into people's homes.

One of the personal 3D printers I wrote about back in 2009 cost $950. Its prototype thermal plastic extruder, encased in plywood, came from a kit that had to be self-constructed. It was only able, layer by layer, to slowly spit out assorted gear shapes, small toys and "some sort of dice thingy" derived from digitized plans. It was nonetheless sold out, with long waiting list.

Still, I wrote, "in the not too distant future" it seemed possible that the technology could be almost commonplace. Well, here we are in the future. And 3D printing has come a long way  -  not least in medicine.

"Once considered science fiction, the ability to do 3D printing  -  to produce objects on demand at relatively low cost  -  has become a reality," write Vivek Srinivasan and Jarrod Bassan of CSC in Forbes.

And more than that, it's growing. The magazine lays out its predictions for the technology in 2013  -  including increasing industrialization, innovation and commercialization. Also, one specific application gets excited mention.

"3D printing starts saving lives," write Srinivasan and Bassan. "3D-printed medical implants will improve the quality of life of someone close to you. Because 3D printing allows products to be custom-matched to an exact body shape, it is being used today for making better titanium bone implants, prosthetic limbs and orthodontic devices."

Meanwhile, more exciting advances are on the horizon.

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