Desktop 3D printing is empowering a world of innovators by enabling those without formal design or engineering skills to find solutions to their own problems.
At the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., surgeons and scientists are exploring whether they can replace patients' damaged or diseased windpipes with customized ones grown in the lab.
It's a lofty goal made possible only in recent years with advances in biomedical engineering. But the team ran into a major obstacle in trying to make it a useful therapy. Though researchers already know how to grow cartilage, the problem has been shaping it into the right form. So they turned to another field that has exploded with possibility in recent years—3D printing.
They first looked at machines called bioprinters, which are specifically designed for this kind of work, but their cost — as much as $180,000 per unit — can be prohibitive. Instead, Todd Goldstein, a researcher at the Feinstein Institute, modified the dual extruders on a much more economically priced MakerBot Replicator 2X 3D printer. Their work got the machine to print both a scaffold of standard plastic filament and seed cartilage cells on top of it. The precisely shaped piece of cartilage that came out of the printer could be designed to fit into any patient.
By iterating on this design with input from surgeons, the institute has come up with a proof of concept that could become a viable treatment in years to come.
For all the recognized value of 3D printing in design, engineering and education, there’s one story that’s just not discussed enough. 3D printing is democratizing innovation by empowering those without formal technical training to find solutions to their own problems.
Whether in a school, business, startup or research lab, you may have experienced a problem like the institute's researchers encountered: the best, most proven resources aren’t always affordable or available. Hinging success on whether or not you have the best can discourage you from looking for resources that are newer, more innovative, and more effective, albeit less established. Operating in this way can also discourage you from creating solutions that improve upon what’s conventionally been the best.
3D printers are empowering a world of accidental innovators to solve their own problems. These are people who do not have formal engineering skills but are able to turn their ideas into physical objects because desktop 3D printing has become more accessible than ever before — from easy-to-use 3D design software to printers that are more reliable and produce higher-quality parts. They may not have started out thinking of themselves as innovators, but their curiosity, persistence, and ingenuity have turned them into just that.
In this context, desktop 3D printers can be more effective and efficient than established resources. They can also allow you to create your own solutions.
The list of innovative solutions uncovered by 3D printers grows every day. At Pfizer, as part of their preclinical testing for rheumatoid and osteoarthritis drugs, scientists 3D printed a tube for holding tiny bone samples in the exact same position for many, many micro CT scans. With it, they can obtain highly detailed images to learn the effects of a particular drug. This solution saved the company time and thousands of dollars that would be needed to have another firm design a one-off piece.
Desktop 3D printing is also lowering the barrier to entry for young inventors. Matt Sauer, a 17-year-old Missouri high school student, wanted to help his father, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and had lost the ability to open his own pill bottles. So Matt designed a bottle opener and printed it out. His invention was so successful that Sauer has been approached by companies wanting to commercialize his design.
These are just a few of the new and useful objects that people not trained as engineers have produced to solve problems. With the willingness to learn, the persistence to follow through on an idea, and the creativity to iterate, anyone can now create a solution to a problem through 3D printing. In so doing, what might seem like small innovations can actually amount to cheaper, faster, safer and more effective breakthroughs. There is little doubt that the 3D printer is democratizing innovation so that anyone can become a maker. Your breakthrough moment is just a 3D print away.
Top Image: Daniel A. Grande, PhD, director of the Orthopedic Research Laboratory at the Feinstein Institute, and Todd Goldstein, an investigator at the Feinstein Institute, part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, with their MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer that they used to 3D print cartilage to repair tracheal damage. Courtesy of the Feinstein Institute.
Jonathan Jaglom is CEO of MakerBot.
All views expressed are those of the author.