Custom-made kidney tissue. Octopus-like robots. Batteries smaller than a grain of sand.
These are some of the inventions that 3D printing could make possible, according to Jennifer Lewis, ScD, a leader in the field and the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
Lewis explained the basics of 3D printing and her vision for its future to University of Colorado Denver students, faculty and staff as the speaker at this year’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture. The Damrauer Endowed Lectureship Fund sponsored the lecture.
Lewis’ presentation, “3D Printing: Making the Future,” gave a synopsis of what she and other researchers are working on and what might be possible in the next few decades.
“This is something I really believe in. I believe we can use these digital tools to rapidly innovate,” Lewis said. The technology is already leading to revolutionary changes in manufacturing, and some day human tissue created by 3D printers might save countless lives.
Moving beyond prototypes to finished parts
Lewis started her presentation by noting there has been a lot of talk over the past few years about 3D printing. As 3D printers become smaller and cheaper, they have become more accessible to the public. The popular media “has just exploded,” with stories about the latest advances in 3D printing and revolutionary potential.
“You can’t listen to NPR or open the New York Times and not read something about 3D printing,” Lewis said.
Some might ask if the attention is just hype. Lewis clearly doesn’t think so, saying that 3D printing already has revolutionized product design and prototyping, and now we’re on the verge of using 3D printers to create mass-customized or complex parts that cannot be easily made by traditional methods.
“For example, you can innovate quickly,” Lewis said. “A designer could have an idea, and 24 hours later or less they could print the prototype, augment the design and make a better part.”
Companies such as General Electric are now using printers to build production parts, such as fuel injectors, for aircraft engines. Other examples include hearing aids or orthodontics that are shaped to fit the unique contours of each individual.
“Octobots” and future breakthroughs
Future breakthroughs are happening out of public view, Lewis said, and might not yield products right away but set the stage for new advances in soft robotics, lightweight structures and more.
“In the academic community, we’re able to create things that simply can’t be made in any other way,” Lewis said. “Because 3D printing allows unprecedented control over composition and structure, we can unlock new performance properties.”
“We’re able to create things that simply can’t be made in any other way.”
One result of that is the small, flexible robot called the “octobot.” The octobot is a rudimentary but functioning autonomous robot made of soft, rubbery plastic. Fluidic logic, inflatable features, and an on-board fuel supply are embedded within the body of the octobot. This robot, which has eight legs that wiggle, was inspired by the octopus.
The octobot is a breakthrough because of its ability to move autonomously without the need for an external power supply or rigid electronics. A so-called soft robot like the octobot could be used in the future for search-and-rescue missions to crawl through debris to find trapped people.
The octobot impressed the crowd, and it proves researchers are unlocking the technology’s potential and making huge strides in basic science. But right now, Lewis acknowledges it will be a while before they do much outside the lab.
“It is truly the first fully soft robot. At the same time, all it does is twitch, so there’s a long way to go,” Lewis deadpanned, drawing laughs and applause from the audience.
Organs—the Holy Grail
A twitching octobot or the battery the size of a grain of sand that Lewis’s lab developed are big steps forward, but her eyes are on a bigger prize—creating human tissues and eventually organs for people who need transplants to stay alive.
“That’s what motivates my research team. That’s what gets us up every day,” Lewis said.
Lewis said about 120,000 people are on the organ donor list in the U.S., and 100,000 are waiting for kidney transplants. The number is increasing every year, and there are many more patients than donors.
Lewis’s lab is working on the problem. They have shown that it is possible to create vascularized human tissues that contain cells, blood vessels and proteins needed to keep the cells alive. They have also recently produced an important subunit within the kidney, known as the proximal tubule.
Someday, researchers might be able to use her team’s approach to create kidney tissue or even organs. While that is reason for hope, Lewis also is realistic. She compares organ printing to the development of microelectronics, which continually improved thanks to rapid advances in technology yet still took a few decades to fulfill their revolutionary promise.