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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

RAPID 2015: 3D Printing In Vivo, In Vitro, In Situ, and In Space

May 21st, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

We’ve been in Long Beach, California all week at SME’s RAPID 2015 conference and exhibition. If you want to learn what’s new exciting in things 3D, this is the place to be. Hardware and software vendors, service providers, distributors and resellers, and educational institutions all showcase new offerings in 3D printing, scanning, and additive and subtractive manufacturing.

RAPID is an interesting mix of industry experts, pundits, users, and people just curious about this fascinating 3D world that continues to grow at an exponential rate. This year about 4,000 attended RAPID with almost 200 exhibitors

RAPID is about the most recent developments in the field, as well as what may be coming in the future. A number of technologies, techniques, and innovations are discussed during technical sessions, but this year, we found among the most interesting topics to be 3D bioprinting and 3D printing in space.

The first morning’s keynote was made by Jason Dunn, CTO of Made In Space, who talked on the topic of “Bringing Additive Manufacturing to Space.” The company was founded in 2010 with the goal of enabling humanity’s future in space. It has developed additive manufacturing (AM) technology specifically for use in the space environment (no easy task). By manufacturing space assets in space, as opposed to launching them from Earth, the company is attempting to accelerate and broaden space development while also providing unprecedented access for people on Earth to use in-space capabilities (the ultimate goal of a business model to monetize its cash outlay in space on earth).

Made In Space Launches First 3D Printer to Space

The Zero-G Printer is the first 3D printer designed to operate in zero gravity. Launched into orbit on September 21, 2014, the printer was built under a joint partnership between NASA MSFC and Made In Space. Contracted as the “3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment,” this first version of the Zero-G printer has ushered in the era of off-world manufacturing.

This initial version of the Zero-G Printer is serving as a test bed for understanding the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, and how it can enable the future of space exploration. It is a culmination of contracts and development dating back to 2010 including microgravity tests with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, R&D contracts under NASA’s SBIR Programs, and development contracts with NASA.

Mr. Dunn prefaced his presentation by saying that space exploration has an enormous supply chain problem, meaning that everything that is used in space must originate on earth, and Made In Space is hoping to rectify that problem. For example, it currently costs about $10,000 to get a liter of water into orbit, not to mention a time in space cost of about $40,000 per hour for astronaut time for any required processing. Not exactly economical. Also, today, science experiments are slow and expensive, and Made In Space wants to change that.

His company wants to optimize the supply chain by making it faster or closer from point A to point B. For example, what if we didn’t need a launch from earth for the supply chain and use a source, such as asteroids for resources? This, along with recycling plastic waste in space could provide a sustainable supply chain for space exploration. The goal being a sort of “living off the land,” if you will. Objects made in space would also skirt the problem that currently everything designed for space is actually designed to survive the toughest part of the trip – the launch.

Manufacturing in remote, closed-loop environments, such as space are the ultimate test beds for recycling everything. Difficult? Yes. Possible? Maybe. Zero gravity structures are interesting, and Made In Space seems to have a good plan for moving sustainable space flight and manufacturing in space to the next phase of reality.

The second morning’s keynote was presented by Dr. William Warren, VP at Sanofi Pasteur, one of the world’s largest vaccine research and manufacturing organizations, currently providing vaccines for 20 infectious diseases.

We’ve all heard for some time that 3D printing of tissues, or bioprinting is just around the corner, and it’s still just that – around the corner. However, major progress is being made.

Dr. Warren talked about bioprinting in the contexts of in situ (in position, in its original place), in vivo (within the living), and in vitro (in glass (test tubes)). His goal and the goal of Sanofi Pasteur is not bioprinting for bioprinting’s sake, but more for using bioprinting for creating surrogate human systems for developing and testing vaccines.

Below is a video of Sanofi Pasteur’s Modular IMmune In vitro Construct (MIMIC) System, asurrogate human immune system that enables researchers to test the immune response to a vaccine, biologic, drug, environmental irritant, cosmetic, or other product directly in a human system.

How Sanofi Pasteur’s MIMIC System Works

As you can imagine, creating human tissue systems is very complex, as there are over 200 different cell types within the human body. For advancing bioprinting, Dr. Warren would like to see more of an engineering approach taken as opposed to a strictly biological approach. He feels that technology is ahead of the biology in bioprinting, and that a lot of basic research is still lacking in bioprinting. Basically, what’s missing in bioprinting is a true understanding of the complexity and interactions between individual tissues and tissue systems.

Critical for bioprinting success are the ability to vascularize biological constructs, and the ability to print a wide range of viscosities for printing hard and soft tissues simultaneously. Realistically, these needs will need more time and resources to become reality, and progress is being made at a fairly good rate, but reality is still “around the corner,” and a time frame is anybody’s guess.

There was a lot to cover during RAPID, and I’ve only scratched the surface about the experience, but in the coming weeks, I’ll detail some of the more compelling technologies and sessions I witnessed, as well an overview of available and soon-to-be-available desktop 3D printers (there were a ton of them shown at RAPID 2015).

The next edition, RAPID 2016, will be held in Orlando, Florida, from May 16-19, 2016. I’m already looking forward to it.

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