The next wave of 3D printing gets personal.

By Tasman Richardson

Customized, personalized, hi-tech yet crafted. In a season of wish lists, these are the most sought after requests consumers make. The quest for tailored products has always been complex because a balance needs to be struck between mass production, and the market demand. The words mass production conjure images of assembly lines, uniformity, and one size fits all repetition. To really customize a product in an industrial world, we need to break it down into components. Components that can mix and match to make a whole host of possibilities to choose from, but in spite of all this selection, it’s still a shot gun approach. Throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, and a greater risk and expense.

A while back, I wrote about the rise of 3D printing and its transition from a primitive manufacturing tool (pooping plastics in methodical stacks to form solid objects) to a sophisticated, flexible tool for everything from culinary arts to organ transplants. What makes 3D printing so exciting for manufacturing is that it introduces a completely different way of producing all those custom made components. In the old days (that’s what we’ll be saying in ten years), making parts meant stamping, molding, casting, sculpting, etc., which then meant you needed custom parts just to make your custom parts! Printing objects is so versatile you can produce just one of a kind and then print a completely different object with the exact same machinery.

Okay, that’s the preamble. The nice thing about humans is the way we can re-apply old methods to make new results, hence the leap from printing ink to printing food. But what’s more amazing is the human ability to create recombinant technology. We take it for granted, but until 2008 our music carrying iPods, our laptop carrying internet access, and our cell phones were separate devices! We hauled all that junk around and marvelled at the convenience of our modern times, and now we get cranky when we can’t email cat videos at 30,000 feet from a pocket size phone. The point is, things change faster than you think. Now imagine, what would be possible if 3D printing was combined with molecular biology? Answer: sneakers and drugs.

Custom styling your running shoes is impressive, but a running sole that responds to the exact shape of your foot and your exact style of running is the outer limit of tailoring. That’s exactly what Shamees Aden, London (UK) based designer and researcher is working on. Her trainers are printed to the precise size and fit of a person’s feet so they’re a perfect fit, made entirely from protocells! Protocells aren’t alive on their own, but chained together they make a kind of living tissue that responds to its environment. So while you’re running the sole adjusts, puffing and collapsing, becoming stiff or supple depending on how you run and even what terrain you run on. Mind you, you’ll have to plunk them into a jar of protocell liquid to let them regain their strength, but that’s about the same as watering a plant. Sadly, these wondrous trainers won’t be available until 2050 but by then you’ll most likely have them teleported directly to your feet so, it’s all good.

Amazingly (I’ll be using that word a lot), in just 5 years, 3D cell printing could eliminate the need for animal testing. Many of the medications we come to depend on require strict safety standards. Even when a medication reaches human trials, the testing is based on a generic one-size-fits-all human model. Having a pill that’s formulated exactly to your needs could only be possible if the testing was done on you. Actually, testing on a rabbit or mouse only proves that it’s safe for rodents but the same drugs often fail with humans, which is why so few rabbit friendly meds make it past the last stage. Unfortunately, you haven’t got any spare parts as back up so until now testing on your own eyes, heart, etc. just wasn’t sensible. Thanks to Alan Faulkner-Jones, in the very near future we may be testing on tiny 3D printed cell samples of ourselves. Alan is a bioengineering PhD student at Heriot Watt U of Edinburgh. He and his team have successfully produced small printed swatches of living human tissue which responds just like a full size human body. He calls it “human on a chip”. Not only would these chips provide results far more accurate (and human) than any animal, but they could test how a drug would work on a single unique person by using that person’s own cell samples.

The future of ultra-custom-personalization (trademark pending?), from 5 years to 36 years is so rich with potential. But like all things, there are two sides to the coin. Let me leave you with this very human flaw in our bright future: As of today, the US Senate has voted to extend a ban on the production and use of plastic guns until 2024. Until recently, manufacturing a fully functional, inexpensive, plastic gun, simply wasn’t possible. Now, thanks to 3D printing, it’s not only possible, it’s easy, and unlike a traditional metal gun, 3D printed plastics are invisible to metal detectors. Using 3D home printers, anyone can print both a deadly weapon, or a realistic replica for intimidation.

Is a world of unique product offerings sustainable or preferable? Is human nature ready for total customization? Can we be sure we want what we want, and when we throw it all away to print the next custom fad, what happens to all those plastics, protocells, and other waste? Feel free to post your opinions below.

Read my sources for the full story:

3D printed proto-cell sneakers

3d printed human tissue could replace animal testing