3D printing has captured a lot of attention thanks to its science fiction connotations. In reality, 3D printing is anything but fiction since it’s available in many households – even as a sophisticated toy for kids.
Clearly, 3D printing is more than a passing curiosity, and with researchers from Princeton now able to create “bionic” body parts using 3D printing techniques, the world’s first bionic man may be here sooner than you think.
As part of a project demonstrating new 3D printing techniques, Princeton researchers embedded tiny light-emitting diodes into a standard contact lens, allowing the device to project beams of colored light. The researchers have not developed this lens for human use in the eye, but it is part of an ongoing effort to use 3D printing to assemble diverse, and often hard-to-combine, materials into functioning devices. Princeton professors also created a bionic ear made from living cells with an embedded antenna that could receive radio signals. Thus, restoring a person’s hearing for the first time.
Printed lenses and bionic ears?
This sends me back to my childhood to Steve Austin and the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” where a former test pilot is rebuilt with nuclear powered limbs and implants that make him faster, stronger and better than normal.
Bionic strength of 3D printing
Traditional manufacturing methods depend on cutting and molding technologies to create a limited number of structures and shapes, with more intricate hollow ones formed from a number of parts and assembled together. However, 3D printing technology transforms this process—the nozzle of the 3D printer can create many complex figures, being confined only by a person’s imagination. The use of 3D printing technology takes virtual designs from animation modeling software or computer-aided design (CAD), converts them into thin, virtual, flat cross-sections and then produces successive layers until the complete model is produced.
For the Princeton researchers, one of 3D printing’s greatest strengths is its ability to create electronics in complex forms. Unlike traditional electronics manufacturing, which builds circuits in flat assemblies and then stacks them into three dimensions, 3D printers can create vertical structures as easily as horizontal ones.
Will 3D printing replace traditional manufacturing?
Manufacturing experts do not envision 3D printing replacing traditional manufacturing in electronics any time soon. Instead, 3D is seen as a complementary technology. Traditional manufacturing is a fast and efficient way to make multiple copies with high reliability. Manufacturers use 3D printing, which is slower when it comes to higher numbers of copies, but easy to change and customize, to create molds and patterns for rapid prototyping.
Blinking contact lenses and bionic ears are two perfect examples that may sound weird in the beginning, but show that the work of interdisciplinary R&D teams using latest technology can result in true innovation – and generate new use cases that one has not even dreamt of before.
With all the talk in the press about enhanced robotics, the internet of things and systems engineering, I think we can soon rebuild Steve Austin.
To learn how your engineers can collaborate across different disciplines, check out the recent blog post, “Importance of a Unified Platform for Authoring Tools.”