Wednesday, January 9, 2013

3-D printer today, Star Trek replicator tomorrow?

A friend told me about this "printer” that could print almost anything. A leg for your coffee table, a part for your 64 Mustang, and here’s where she lost me, a body part.

Pretty cool, huh? Need a kidney? Print one out. In outer space and you have to fix something outside your spaceship? Print an android.

3-D printers are here. So far they are used by industries such as automotive or aerospace, and they currently can only print things in a plastic type material. But in many cases the final product is something that can be used in real application. As far as replacing body parts, at present there is some truth to that. Bones such as spines or cranial facial parts can be printed out. Heart tissue and other body parts that need to be replaced are not actually created by the printer. What it can create is a scaffold type construction that is biodegradable. This will allow the living cells time to replicate and grow naturally. As over time the body is able to repair itself; it will no longer needs the replacement parts and the parts will begin to dissolve and be harmlessly absorbed by the body. Modern magic and modern medicine.

So far cartilage is doable, and as mentioned, various medical devices and spare parts, but no organs. Hod Lipson would have you believe they will be doing that soon. I am skeptical, but really hope to be proved wrong. They have been experimenting with items using four or five different materials. Many of these have been successful. They have printed a real battery that works. Now they have moved on to a current goal of creating a remote controlled robot that will walk out of the printer and they expect to complete it within two years.

I definitely have faith in its incredible ability, but I think that some of the futuristic dreams are a bit lofty. The spare liver or lung: For that particular miracle I think we will find the answer in a different area. My money is on regeneration, not a printer. But perhaps we could end up with something like the Star Trek replicator. Rest easy chefs, a machine will probably never be able to replace you. Maybe make the food that you want and make it now, but gourmet and in 30 seconds? NAH!

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