3-D Printing: From Science Fiction to Reality

In February of 2012, Kaiba Gionfriddo, at the young age of eight months, lay on a restaurant table as he gasped for air, his skin taking on a blue hue. As the doctors at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital later told his parents, he was suffering from the extremely rare condition of tracheobronchomalacia. Gionfriddo was discovered to have weak windpipe tissues, which were so delicate that the windpipe itself had collapsed.

After much deliberation, including consulting Gionfriddo’s doctors in Ohio, the doctors decided to take an path that seemed like it was science fiction. Using the revolutionary 3-D printer, they decided to print a personally designed splint, which would be inserted in Gionfriddo’s airways to hold them open. With the aid of this extraordinary technology, they were able to save young Gionfriddo’s life, opening yet another pathway for 3-D printing in the process.


The Technology

Since the 3-D printer was invented in 1983 by the American engineer Chuck Hull, more and more applications have been discovered for its use. The website 3D Printing provides an in-depth explanation of how the process works: rather than printing 2-D pictures like an ordinary printer, 3-D printers scan customizable computer-designed and even real-life objects. When the acrylic liquid, or ink used by 3-D printers, is exposed to ultraviolet light, it hardens into a solid. Using a series of robotic arms, this ink is slowly released into complex three-dimensional shapes that are exact replicas of the scanned object.

 

A Makerbot Replicator 2 prints a minecraft model during the yearly OHM competition (Flicker/postapocalyptic)
A Makerbot Replicator 2 prints a minecraft model during the yearly OHM competition (Flicker/postapocalyptic)

 

Using the precise details of a computer and the imagination of the humans who design the object, 3-D printers can take extraordinary ideas and bring them to life.

According to MediMedia USA, 3-D printers are today used by medical personnel to print replacement organs for their patients, prosthetic parts, tissues, even human organs- anything that is imaginable. In fact, as NASA’s website explains, it is currently working on a 3-D printer that will work in space, in order to print pizza for its astronauts. In April of 2014, the Washington Post reported that Chinese construction workers had created ten houses using 3-D printing.


3-D Printing is Everywhere

Many people view 3-D printers as a amazing invention, but something they will never be able to use. However, they may not realize that 3-D printers are not too far off from being used in everyday life. Anika Ramachandran, a sophomore at Monta Vista, has tried 3-D printing personally. She recalled the experience with enthusiasm: “I went to the Microsoft store and I chose a design I wanted for my phone case…it printed the case layer by layer. It was a really fantastic experience.”

3-D printing may be more common than people think- in fact, the Sunnyvale Library offers a free 3-D printer where one can make an appointment, design an object, and watch it being printed before their eyes. The objects being printed can be pre-designed, or  they can be designed on free softwares such as SketchUp or SolidWorks.

Even Staples and Amazon have begun to offer 3-D printing, allowing you to print anything you desire- jewelery, toys, a model of your head – anything that can be scanned or designed by a computer. More than just printing on paper, they can print in plastic, silver, gold, or other metals, and in the future, even in food.

As Pavithra Pandian, a Monta Vista sophomore, says, “I think that it’s really amazing what 3-D printers can do, and how it can affect our life. It would also be really cool to own a 3D printer!”


Looking Ahead

3-D printing can help doctors, print houses, provide entertainment, and give opportunities for ordinary people. A recent study on the medical applications of 3-D printing found that the technology is already being used to make replacements for organs, and in the future may lead to the development of a treatment for cancer.

In the case of Kiaba Gionfriddo, 3-D printing saved his life. His splint fit perfectly in his body and expanded as he continued to grow, eventually dissolving harmlessly. Three weeks after his surgery, Gionfriddo was disconnected from the ventilator and released from the hospital,  living as another one of the many examples of the wonders that 3-D printing can achieve.

While it may seem like something from the distant future, 3-D printing is here today…and it can accomplish miracles.