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Printing a better world – By Shannon Macdonald

Printing a Better World

Tony Stark recently made an appearance at an unspecified location to give a young boy named Alex his very own bionic, Ironman-like arm to replace the one he’s lacking. Stark met up with Alex in a hotel room where he gave the boy the arm and compared it to the semi-robotic limb of his alter ego. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really Tony Stark, but actor Robert Downey Jr. had no problem reprising the role of the multibillionaire and superhero for the sake of young Alex. The bionic prosthetic was built by Albert Manero, a mechanical engineer from the University of Central Florida, and is capable of movement through electro-muscular signals with the help of 3D printing (or “additive manufacturing”).
An impressive feat on its own – but even more so when you consider that the total production cost amounted to no more than $350. Manero works for Limbitless Solutions, a company that strives to make limbs like young Alex’s available for all. In a statement, he says “We were all bound to the belief that no one should profit from a child in need of an arm.” In the past, if someone had wanted to create something as simple as a figurine from scratch, it would take a lot of work, and would require more than one person.
First there would be the conceptualist, the artist that designs the dimensions of the object so there would be a visual to reference. Then another person makes a mold of the figure in plastic, clay or metal. Once that had dried and cooled, the mold would then be filled with a superheated material in liquid form, which would in turn have to fully harden, be sanded and get painted. It’s a tedious process, but it’s been simplified and made much more convenient, thanks to the constantly evolving, improving and expanding world of 3D printing. With branches in art, technology, and health sciences, there's really no telling what the future of this exciting new technology holds.
"We’ll get to the point where hopefully you can just get replacement parts by companies sending you a file. Once it’s in everybody’s home, that’s probably where it’ll go." - Matthew Belo
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It’s a simple concept at heart: The repeated layering of a material, such as a polymer, building up into an entire object. The machine uses instructions given from programming, using dimension files created by a person or scanned from an existing object. The machines are able to cut the creation process down from days to less than 24 hours for a smaller object. With multiple printers making individual parts, even bigger projects can be created and ready for human use just as fast. Matthew Belo is the marketing coordinator for Objex Unlimited, one of Toronto's leading 3D printing studios. Belo says that right now, there are only certain types of people who can really use the technology that’s available, because of the skill sets that are needed.
“People in the manufacturing or more in the prototyping industry [use 3D printing]. People that are trying to make a new product, that are trying to figure out their design, they now have that power,” he says. 
Those with a real passion for all things computers, like members of Toronto’s Hacklab, have even built their own fully operational printers. Belo hopes that given time, such technology will become as commonplace as standard 2 dimensional printers. “We’ll get to the point where hopefully you can just get replacement parts by companies sending you a file. Once it’s in everybody’s home, that’s probably where it’ll go.”
“You’re taking an idea that came from your head that went onto a computer screen into the real world and it’s so satisfying."
There are already websites, such as Thingiverse, were you can create, download and share 3D printing files for all kinds of things ranging from bizarre to mundane. There are numerous ‘collections’ of files, such as Braille objects, gears and architecture pieces. There are many things that 3D printing is helping to make consumer friendly.
Products that used to be almost unattainable for the average consumer are now possible because they are much more economical. Hugh Kha works as a 3D print specialist at Objex, and is a project manager in the field. Kha says he enjoys the payoff of having his ideas materialize in a physical format. “You’re taking an idea that came from your head that went onto a computer screen into the real world and it’s so satisfying,” he says.
There are obvious utilitarian benefits, too: Making things more accessible for other people who may not have the means to provide themselves the things they need. “People who don’t have a lot of money but still need things like prosthetics… the functionalities of the parts that are coming off the machines are really impressive. Formerly these prosthetics cost thousands, and were unavailable to anyone in any sort of poverty situation, especially if you don’t have health care,” says Kha. A good example of what stylized prosthetic limbs could look like is musician Viktoria Modesta’s prosthetic leg. Modesta is a pop star from Latvia. She is changing the way people regard those with amputated limbs by incorporating them into her photoshoots. Modesta dons many different styles of prosthetic limbs including a steampunk style leg and a black pointed spike. Thanks to 3D printing, people like Modesta can customize their prosthetic limbs much like she does, which will help lessen the stigma on people with disabilities. 

There is a bigger impact being felt in health sciences than prosthetic limbs and hip replacements, though. Toronto has the luxury of having some very bright scientists create remarkable equipment for printing live tissues. Skin has been created using a similar technology, called bio-printing. SanDiego company Organovo attempted to create a liver, which was a small success – researchers were able to create the organ, but could not sustain it. Experiments like these take time, though, and the progress made is still impressive.

Not to be outdone, art and entertainment have made fair use of additive manufacturing in the form of the “3Doodler”. It's a pen that can draw in the air, provided it has a stable base to start from.

Katie Addison, a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, is the proud owner of one of these groundbreaking pens. "It’s kind of neat,” says Addison. “You really need to build up layers to provide the structure it needs. Lots of supports to give it the structure it needs."
Unique in their design, these pens could become the catalyst for a new art form. They have the potential to take the programming and computers out of the equation for architecture and statues, says Addison.

Though the pen still has its flaws (created structures really need the support to stand on their own), it’s a great hobby tool for anyone who loves to draw or design.
“[I make] small little things, usually videogame related…as it is, it can be a little bit hard to control the lines. It doesn’t look perfect like it would of you were using an actual 3D printer. It has good applications in fine arts… like 3D installation and sculptural art work,” says Addison.

The 3Doodler isn’t for anyone who isn’t committed to their doodling, as it costs around $200, though the plastic that is used only costs about $10 for a pack of 20 sticks, and it looks and acts much like a tricked-out glue gun.

3D printing was patented by Charles Hull, the founder of the first company to use the technology, 3D systems Inc. Though it has been around for more than 30 years, 3D printing has just begun making leaps and bounds in its ability to create and make life simpler. At a recent TED talk, the world was introduced to Continuous Liquid Interface Production or CLIP. A game changing process, it manipulates light and oxygen around a UV curable resin to shape an object much faster, kind of like the T1000 in Terminator 2. That’s where Joseph DeSimone, an award winning American chemist, says he got the inspiration for CLIP.
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“3D printing is actually a misnomer. It’s actually 2D printing over and over. New ideas are often simple connections between people with different communities and different experiences, and that’s our story,” he said in the TED talk last month. For two years in the making, it’s miraculously effective. It’s 20 to one hundred times faster than standard 3D printers. He and his team aren’t finished yet, they are aiming for 1,000 times faster than current technology. 

“3D printing is actually a misnomer. It’s actually 2D printing over and over. New ideas are often simple connections between people with different communities and different experiences, and that’s our story,” he said in the TED talk last month. For two years in the making, it’s miraculously effective. It’s 20 to one hundred times faster than standard 3D printers. He and his team aren’t finished yet, they are aiming for 1,000 times faster than current technology. 

It’s not without its drawbacks, however: At the moment, the printing process is a long one. To print hollow objects no larger than a tennis ball could take almost 10 hours. Though there are numerous materials for manufacturing, they are often too weak and limited in their flexibility. Many fear that jobs will be lost to 3D printing, as there will be less need for industrial assembly lines, as the technology surpasses the need for post printing assembly. It’s possible that even the number of construction workers could see a drop if 3D printed houses pick up in popularity.

The Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. made an entire village of full-sized 3D printed buildings. In January 2015, the company created the biggest building printed to date, standing five stories, along with a mansion that is 1,100 metres. This follows the company’s impressive feat of printing ten houses in 24 hours last year.

Detractors might breathe a cautious sigh of relief for the time being, though. There is still quite some distance until many jobs become obsolete. Even then, new jobs will be created to build and program the machines. Jobs may not be lost – just changed, much like our future thanks to this kind of innovation.

Who knows where we'll end up in the next 30 years. The era of hoverboards, matter transmitters and chrome-plated everythings may be light years ahead, but for now, researchers are doing their best to “make it so.”

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