Material Advances: Biological Feedstocks

Over the shorter term, biological applications will gradually become more central to fabrication. The process will likely begin with food. There is, for example, no reason that the statues standing atop future wedding cakes could not be accurate 3D models of the actual couple created from only a few photo images. This kind of food printing is likely to be a large market for next-stage commercialization of 3D printing. Because many common foods are already in liquid form at some point in their processing, it is not difficult to imagine commercial services, home products, and even toys that take advantage of these properties.

Beyond this, biomedical applications currently under development have more astonishing implications. Ongoing stem-cell research, rather than fabrication per se, is the real miracle, but 3D printing offers a means to precisely position and shape the cells for broader applications. Indeed, successful experiments have manipulated stem cells with technology no more sophisticated than a standard home ink-jet printer.

The successful addition of a scaffolding material implies that 3D fabrication will likely take its place as an integral part of future tissue engineering efforts. While still many years from clinical use, organic forms are already being printed from live organ stem cells, as was demonstrated on stage at the 2011 TED conference by presenter Dr. Anthony Atala.

Organ Printing in Dr. Anthony Atala’s Lab
On a still more novel front, this capability will likely extend into experiments with in-vivo meat. If “grown meat” becomes a viable product in the future, it is likely that 3D printing will play a key role in this transition.