If you can 3D print a playing violin, why not 3D print a pumping heart?
We can already 3D print violins that can be played. Technology is evolving quickly. So where might we be heading? And what important new questions are being raised in a world of highly advanced 3D printing?
Industrial designers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington are already looking to the next frontier: emulating nature. We’re exploring the idea of printing the way nature prints. Instead of using DNA code, we’re using digital code to create objects. Customised products can already be printed cheaply in the home. Soon, manufacturing waste will be reduced to virtually zero. And New Zealand will be at the heart of revolutionary manufacturing ideas.
Today, brilliant design can be sent digitally to the world and fabricated using the latest materials. We may never manufacture in vast quantities, but our cutting-edge ideas are in demand.
Moving beyond digital code into 3D printing biology with ‘ink’ containing tissue and cells raises complex ethical questions, presenting political, philosophical and even theological issues. If we can imagine it, we can make it. The question then becomes not can we, but should we?
A new way to make
Ross Stevens, the senior lecturer in Industrial Design at the University's School of Design Innovation, says traditional manufacturing techniques that were developed during the industrial revolution were never a good fit for New Zealand.
“The one thing you need for mass production is mass population, and that’s the one thing New Zealand doesn’t have. Making cars and dishwashers here only worked as long as tariffs were in place, but once they were removed that type of industry made no sense,” he says. “So we need new ways of making things that suit New Zealand, and I think 3D printing is a really good fit because it allows you to turn an idea into a product much more easily. We’re a country full of great ideas and that makes us the perfect place to really embrace that kind of technology.
“At the University we have accepted that mass production has left New Zealand and that the job market has changed. So we really actively look for what’s coming that will employ people in highly-skilled, highly-desirable jobs, and are investing in ways to educate students for that future.”
Ahead of the game
The University has recently signed a partnership with Stratasys, the world’s largest 3D print manufacturer. The research agreement allows the School of Design Innovation to beta-test software and experiment with new ways of printing using 3D pixels called voxels.
“This partnership means that we can do work that is ahead of the capability that is currently available—we then feed back to Stratasys about the types of things we need machinery to do, so they can develop that technology.”
Ross says the partnership has allowed staff and students to use 3D printing in entirely novel ways. “Using Stratasys 3D printers, we can create creatures that can move—they become like animated puppetry. The potential these sorts of creations provide for filmmaking is enormous. We are working closely with Weta Workshop, and I think our role at the University is to push them, to keep making sure they’re ahead of the game.”
“Once you start additive manufacturing—that’s the technical term for 3D printing—it’s quite similar to biology in the way cells divide and build from nothing up. So we’re starting to see more synergies with bioengineering than traditional mechanical engineering,” explains Ross.
“I think it raises a lot of ethical issues too, which is something that the University is very good at dealing with—we can look at the politics of it, the philosophy of it, and even the theological issues it presents. If we start 3D printing biology then I think the University is the perfect place to answer those complex questions.”