3D printing a revolution across Delaware Valley

April 26, 2013 6:42:45 PM PDT
3D printing is a new technology promising to revolutionize how we get products and the Delaware Valley is becoming a hotbed for it.

From South Philadelphia to University City and beyond, these machines are forging a revolution. This is the world of three dimensional printing.

Instead of putting ink onto flat paper, 3D printers use liquid plastic and other materials.

"They squirt something out and sort of draw layer-by-layer to build up these 3-dimensional shapes," said Evan Malone.

When that liquid hardens, you have a 3D object. Nextfab Studio in South Philadelphia provides 3D printing for companies who want prototypes of future products.

They can be simple or they can be complex.

The firm's founder showed Action News a wheel with ball bearings. It wasn't machined or assembled but 'printed' with two liquids - one of them dissolvable.

It comes out of the machine in one piece, but:

"You dissolve it out, and it's free to turn, and it's very precise and quite smooth-running ball bearings. All done by a printer," said Malone.

"We can make virtually anything we can imagine," said Jordan Miller, Ph.D.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Miller is building artificial blood vessels - that may lead someday to transplantable human organs.

Using molten sugar, the printer creates slender threads to form the vessels then a gel with human cells goes into the mold.

Later, the sugar threads are washed away, the tubes left behind are filled with the kind of cells that line blood vessels.

The early results are promising.

"They were able to create new capillary sprouts coming off of the vessels we made," said Miller.

Transplantable organs may be years off but 3D printing is already being used today in medicine.

Mayo Clinic doctors are designing custom hip replacements to help people with deformities walk again with no pain.

At Cornell University, prosthetic ears are being printed with gel containing human cells.

At Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, realistic printed models allow surgeons to practice complex heart repairs before the actual operation.

"They can cut it, and they can sew into it. When they get to the surgery, they don't have to be surprised by what they didn't know," said Dr. Yoev Dori.

Doctors at CHOP plan to use the same technique for fetal surgery - operations done before a child is born. They say the possibilities are endless.

"It'll become cheaper, it'll become faster," said Dr. Fogel.

3-D printing is already being used in the aircraft industry and in the near future its expected that custom dental braces will be printed.

However like so many other technologies there can be abuses. There are reports of people using printers to create credit card skimmers, illegal copies of keys and then a group in Texas which says it is developing a printable, operable, cheap-to-make semi automatic weapon.