3D printing is a relatively recent technological development that has already begun to revolutionize model-building, structural and other medical procedures, and construction of items from toys to houses.
Also called additive manufacturing (as contrasted with subtractive processes, that is, machining), 3D printing uses digital instructions produced through computer-aided design (CAD) software to create an item by “printing” it in layers using a variety of materials – powders, plastic, ceramics, etc. With ink-jet-type print heads, the materials are extruded layer by layer according to the design.
In its early applications, 3D printing was principally used for creating prototypes or models of larger objects. With 3D printing, those prototypes could be built with greater precision and speed and allow for quick modifications in the design. Rapid prototyping developed during the 1980s and early 1990s.
In the past decade, 3D printing applications have found fertile ground in the medical field. Almost daily, a medical breakthrough made possible through 3D printing is announced. Today, researchers announced that they had created heart muscle that beats when it is implanted in animals. Yesterday, news stories reported that 3D printing had saved a baby’s life by printing a splint that fit over his windpipe and kept it open so he could breathe. Researchers are using 3D printing to produce scaffolding that they then grow tissue on to rebuild human skeletal parts that have been heavily damaged by injuries or diseases.
For example, structural 3D printing has been used to rebuild a young man’s facial structure after an accident shattered his face. A cancer sufferer had a new pelvis “printed” using that technology. Doctors are more often simulating difficult and lengthy operations by using 3D printed models of the organs or parts of the skeleton on which they will be operating. Using those models can drastically reduce the operating time involved and lead to safer and more efficient surgery – thus reducing the risk to the patients.