What’s cooler than the stuff you can 3D print today? The things that 3D printers are almost, but not quite yet, capable of printing someday soon.
3D Printing has come a long way since inventor Charles Hull first prototyped it more than 30 years ago. One of Hull’s first ever builds was a shot-glass sized plastic cup, and even that took days to design and print. Today, scientists and researchers are dwarfing early models both in the sheer size and wealth of materials that they’re prototyping for future prints.
Here are some of the latest advances in 3D printing that are right on the horizon. You can’t print any of them yet, but optimistic technologists think we’ll have all of them within a decade.
A researcher at University of Southern California claims to have designed an enormous 3D printer that could build a 2,500 square foot home in just 24 hours.
The conceptual printer uses concrete as its medium of choice to replicate computer programs of houses. It uses a layered fabrication technology called “Contour Crafting” in order to make sure that houses are built with all the necessary conduits for electrical, air conditioning, and plumbing.
A house-building machine could have far-reaching implications for low income housing, disaster recovery, and home prototyping, but none of that can happen until the machine exists. Until then, you can watch videos of a prototype contour crafting printer in action.
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab in the mediated matter group have long envisioned building houses with 3D printing. The model would be the skeleton of a house using a tanker truck with a robotic arm that could print the foundation of the house in hours.
Well, technically, it’s 3D-printed wood. Two NASA researchers are developing a way to “grow” trees using 3D bioprinting technology.
According to the research team, cells can be cultured to excrete non-living material, like wood. Instead of using plastic, the 3D printer will print living cells in a specific pattern into a gel which will signal the cells to begin excreting wood. The team received $100,000 in funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept Program to make it happen.
This way, astronauts could bring wood to space without actually having to carry along heavy trees from Earth. NASA expects to have the first 3D printed tree complete some time in 2014.
Meat And Leather
Imagine being able to chow down on a steak or wear a fashionable leather jacket and boots—minus that whole slaughtering animals thing.
Modern Meadow is at the forefront of 3D printed bovine byproducts. According to the company, obtaining our meat and leather from cows is just as costly as it is unsustainable. Add to that the number of people hungry for slaughter-free beef and there might actually be a high demand for synthetic meat.
The process is completed by using cellular matter know as bio-ink to build meat products.
In a summary to the Department of Agriculture, Modern Meadow makes its case:
In this technology, conveniently prepared multicellular aggregates (the bio-ink particles) are delivered into a biocompatible support structure according to a design template (compatible with the shape of the desired biological construct) by a computer-controlled delivery device (the bio-printer).
Last year, the company received a six-figure grant to print a one-inch strip of steak, a goal which, judging by the lack of tasty headlines, they haven’t quite reached. But that’s not to say they don’t have the research and brains behind their claim to still make it work.
Not that ears, bones, and skin aren’t complicated in their own ways. But new advances on the horizon of 3D bio-printing may make organ donor waiting lists a thing of the past.
The next challenge? A human heart. Bioengineers at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at the University of Louisville think we’ll be able to create custom heart replacements in a decade. The team has already bio-printed a coronary artery and some of the heart’s smallest blood vessels. They’re hoping to soon print a functioning heart in one go.
Of course, 3D printed organs are no good if engineers are unable to keep them alive. In 2013, scientists bio-printed a tiny liver, but it only stayed alive for about five days. Still, that small success has at least one medical bio-printing company promising to make the first full-size fully functioning liver sometime this year.
If printing complicated organs from scratch turns out to be a dud, why not leave that work to the human body? Scientists can already 3D print embryonic stem cells, so the next step might just be triggering them to get growing.
A Moon Base
This is the most ambitious and most blue sky build on the list. But wouldn’t it be awesome, the European Space Agency is hypothesizing, if astronauts could print their own moon base?
In the absence of plastic, 3D printers on the moon might use lunar soil to create the building blocks of a moon habitat. Researchers at the ESA have already 3D printed 1.5 tonne building block made out of synthetic lunar soil. The results are sturdy but hollow (for lightness) block that astronauts can assemble themselves.
Of course, these experiments are still happening here on Earth. The real test of 3D printing’s power will occur once the ESA launches this technology into space.