A 3D printer can transform a computer design into physical objects — such as jewelry, toys, or even blood vessels — in a matter of minutes.
Yes, that’s right: 3D printers could soon be able to make organs and arteries for transplants.
Seeing is believing, so Jordan Miller — a professor at Rice University who is pioneering the use of 3D printing to create blood vessels used in organ transplants — brought his printer to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to show lawmakers and staffers the revolutionary potential of the technology at an event hosted by Rep. Mark Takano of California and the consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge.
“That’s kind of amazing that it could actually print the cells and create maybe certain types of tissues,” Takano said about Miller’s device. “That’s fascinating.”
Like a traditional printer, a 3D printer starts with a design on the computer. Once you hit send, the printer builds the digital file layer-by-layer into a physical object, using a filament controlled by a small tube instead of ink. Most 3D printers use a form of plastic, but Miller uses sugar to recreate arteries so that they can eventually dissolve.
Originally designed in 1983, the technology will be a multibillion-dollar industry by the end of the decade. The technology is a boon to many industries, making the lives of scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists easier by saving time and money spent on building prototypes. It’s already making an impact — the popular mobile payment system Square was first prototyped with a 3D printer.
Now that the printers can be bought for as low as $200, people are using them to create consumer goods, such as toys and candy, as well as for education.
But 3D printing has the potential to literally save lives. Miller’s printed blood vessels complements work done by scientist around the world who are using the printers to create transplant organs, such as hearts or livers.
Printing full organs is still years away, but the devices allow for the “intense customization” necessary to make it even possible, Miller said. Eventually, scientists could use the printed organs to test new medicines and even one day help fill the need for organ transplants.
Lawmakers are starting to take notice of the technology, and a small group of congressmen wants to ensure that laws are made that help the machines fulfill their promise rather than get in their way.
Like the Internet before it, a 3D printing revolution will challenge existing regulations, specifically intellectual property. The devices are powerful, because they can duplicate objects quickly and precisely, but some are concerned that those qualities could also be used for ill to copy or steal products. Some even fear that the technology could be used to create plastic guns.
“I don’t want to see [guns] as a distraction to the amazing creativity that’s going on in this room,” Takano said.
That’s why Takano, along with Reps. Steve Stivers and Mick Mulvaney, are leading the charge to educate their colleagues and constituents about the potential opportunities of the technology.
“We have to understand [3D printing], and that means bringing the technology to the Capitol for members to actually see with their own eyes how these devices work,” Takano said. “Otherwise, sensationalist headlines that tell a narrow part of the story will drive a congressional agenda that could hurt the industry.”
The Congressional Makers Caucus, launched earlier this year, wants to educate members of Congress about how maker spaces — community spaces that make 3D printers available to the community and entrepreneurs — can be used to educate and innovate.
“3D printing is a technology on the cusp of a major breakthrough that will create jobs, contribute to STEM education and change the average consumers purchasing habits,” Takano added. “It’s Congress’s job to see this positive trend coming and encourage it.”