Nano-Printing and Bio-Printing, the Next Frontier

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Nano-Printing and Bio-Printing, the Next Frontier

Three-dimensional printing technology has been around for nearly 20 years, but until the past five years it has been so expensive and limited that few people had even heard of it. 

But recently, the cost dropped so incredibly that even small production shops can now afford 3-D printing machines.  As the cost continues to drop and the capabilities are extended, more and more products can be created using this technology.1 

Already, the outputs range from “shoes, eyeglasses, and jewelry” to “toys, guns, and aerospace parts.”  Recently, a 3-D printer was used to create a complete titanium jaw for an 83-year old woman. 

3-D printing technology creates solid three-dimensional objects individually from a program loaded into a computer.  Layer after layer of material is deposited, building up the object being made.  Today, some experts predict that 3-D printing will grow into a $3 billion industry by 2018. 

But, given the wide range of new applications and capabilities emerging from this technology, the Trends editors conclude that these forecasts are actually too conservative.  The outputs from this technology will become an integral part of business in the next phase of the Information Revolution.

Not surprisingly, 3D printing technology has already migrated to the nano-scale world, where nano-printing is poised to begin producing infinitesimally small objects that will prove to be cost-effective.  Objects are being created as small as 285 micrometers.  A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter, making these objects far smaller than a grain of sand.

Until recently, a big hurdle for nano-printing has been speed.  But now, that appears to be changing, with new techniques developed by researchers at the Vienna University of Technology.2  A focused laser beam, guided by movable mirrors, hardens a proprietary liquid resin into a solid polymer at precise coordinates to create an object.  The researchers claim this technique speeds up 3-D nano-scale printing by a thousand-fold. 

Applications for nano-printing are only beginning to be imagined.  Professor Lee Cronin of Glasgow University envisions the day when the local pharmacy will disappear.3  Using a commercially available 3-D printer that costs around $2,000, the professor has successfully adapted it to inject organic-based inks into tube-like structures, a first step in developing a process for making home-grown drugs. 

Since most drugs are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, Cronin suggests it is possible to create a printer that uses a relatively small number of inks to make any organic molecule...

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