October 21, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

3-D Printing Is a Simplified Form of Biomimetics

One of the hottest industrial revolutions in progress is 3-D printing.  It can’t hold a candle, though, to biological materials construction.

In a story on PhysOrg, Chad Henry of CSIRO proudly holds two large insect models he made with a 3-D printer.  His 40x creations, originally made as art, are shedding light on insect anatomy, the article goes on to say.  Live bugs, however, build up their tissues and organs with far more precision than any human machine.

“The Future of 3-D Printing,” also on PhysOrg, is a good look at the new technology – especially the embedded video clip interview with Richard Hague, who found himself an early pioneer of the technique that may become as important as the personal computer.  A photo with the article shows a prosthetic arms complete with electrical connections inside, just like – well, the real thing, except vastly simpler.

Hague’s team at the University of Nottingham has its sights set high: a revolution in manufacturing, returning the power of design and implementation to the people:

“At the moment, 3D printing uses single materials, a polymer or a metal, which are fused together with a laser. You can create interwoven geometries but they’re still passive. What we’re looking to do, is activate those and make them functionalise. So rather than make a component, you make the whole system—an example might be rather than print a case for a mobile phone, you make the whole phone—all the electronics, the case, the structural aspects, all in one print.”

In a very real way, that’s exactly what organisms do: they build materials layer upon layer under controlled conditions.  Nacre (mother-of-pearl), for example, achieves its desirable strength without becoming brittle by depositing successive layers of mineral and protein (see 7/26/04).  Materials engineers have been trying to mimic nacre and other biological materials for years (3/27/10, 2/07/11).  3-D printing may help this assembly of ideal materials.  It is also highly scalable.  Some day it may be used for nano-manufacture as well as for airplane parts.

3-D printing imitates another biological technique: following a kind of “genetic code,” a set of programmed instructions that tell the printer where to deposit the individual ingredients.  These codes can be shared in a kind of “lateral gene transfer” one might say, so that humans across the world can duplicate toys, machines, or even edible artworks using the same instruction set.

None of these articles referred to biomimetics, yet their examples of 3-D printed products include mimics of insects and human limbs.  Exciting as the new technology looks, it comes nowhere close to the assembly of materials from an embryo to an adult organism.  Some future 3-D printed art gallery will only be able to boast very cheap imitations of living systems, even if they are capable of movement.  Let one of those plastic beetles lay eggs and grow whole new adult beetles using available materials following an embedded code, and then humans may be a little closer to boasting of intelligent design.

Update 10/21/13: Space.com posted a gallery of 3-D objects created out of metals and alloys, with its report of Europe’s Project AMAZE Conference (Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products), showing the precision and versatility of 3-D printing.

We are at the forefront of a technological revolution comparable to cell phones and home computers.  Already, hobbyists are sharing downloadable designs for printing all kinds of models.  NASA won’t have to launch parts up to the space station; they can just beam up the code and let on-board 3-D printers make them on the spot.  What 3-D printing will do to the manufacturing industry and the economy is hard to say; similar worries were voiced at the advent of personal computers and other industrial revolutions.  Most likely, it will be a boon to the economy, opening up entrepreneurial opportunities and offering new high-paying jobs, while rendering other jobs as superfluous as Pony Express riders or telegraph linemen.  Who knows what useful products are forthcoming?  Hospitals may be able to print customized prosthetics on the spot.  Your garage may just need the design codes to build parts in the shop rather than ordering them from across town.  The Lego company may have to sell programs with bottles of resins instead of hard plastic parts.  Villains will find ways to use the new technology for harm, as usual, and governments will have new challenges for national security or pollution.  Most new technologies have potential for a lot of good, though.

Soon, prices will fall to the point where every home will have to have a 3-D printer, just like it needs a microwave or internet connection.  Local stores will fill shelves with raw materials instead of finished products.  Websites will have downloadable codes ready to use on home printers.  Art galleries will show off the latest creative applications.  If you thought the golden age of invention was over, 3-D printing may be the next “Wow!” breakthrough.  Just remember, though, with all the whiz-bang devices coming forth, nature had it first.  The ability to assemble a living organism from a fertilized cell is the ultimate masterpiece of 3-D manufacture.  Most human designs are flimsy, cheap imitations of the Creator’s ultimate handiwork.  But that’s OK; our clumsy attempts at design give us all the more reason to glorify the omniscient Lord of life, who can make a butterfly cross continents, a tree pumping water nearly 400 feet from the ground, an arctic tern that can fly from pole to pole, and a human mother bringing forth a new baby, able to grow into a rational adult capable of composing music, breaking a pole-vault record, or writing a treatise on the nature of subatomic particles.  The more we try things, the more we can appreciate perfection.



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  • mmartin says:

    Very much so. My personal involvement in embedded computing and 3D-printing brought with it a very tangible grasp of what this created universe is all about. It surprisingly takes a lot of mental work to let the obviousness of a creator truly sink in.

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