What’s the implication of 3D printers for the World Bank’s mission?

What is the implication of 3D printers on the World Bank’s mission of poverty reduction and boosting of shared prosperity? While figuring out the specifics is likely impossible, we do have a few hints at the possibilities.

3D Printer + Internet = Inclusive Education
The internet search engines we use almost every day have changed our lives, in terms of access to information, knowledge, and much more. But for the visually impaired, this invention has had little impact so far. However, through an innovative application of 3D printers, “search experience” for the visually impaired became possible using a voice-activated, 3D printer-installed, Internet search engine.

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3D printing: Pimp my ride

As three-dimensional (3D) printers, which make objects layer by layer, have fallen in price, their use has expanded beyond industry. A number of artists now also employ the technology. One of them, Ioan Florea—Romanian-born but now based in America—used a 3D printer to customise his classic 1971 Ford Torino for a recent exhibition. Mr Florea prints parts in plastic, coats them with other materials or uses the printed parts as moulds. For his car, he developed a process that produces what he calls a “liquid-metal” finish. Ford, which uses 3D printers to make prototype parts, has shown interest in his work, but Mr Florea is keeping his methods secret.
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CU-Boulder researchers develop 4-D printing technology for composite materials

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have successfully added a fourth dimension to their printing technology, opening up exciting possibilities for the creation and use of adaptive, composite materials in manufacturing, packaging and biomedical applications.

A team led by H. Jerry Qi, associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder, and his collaborator Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design has developed and tested a method for 4D printing. The researchers incorporated “shape memory” polymer fibers into the composite materials used in traditional 3D printing, which results in the production of an object fixed in one shape that can later be changed to take on a new shape.

“In this work, the initial configuration is created by 3D printing, and then the programmed action of the shape memory fibers creates time dependence of the configuration – the 4D aspect,” said Dunn, a former CU-Boulder mechanical engineering faculty member who has studied the mechanics and physics of composite materials for more two decades.

The 4D printing concept, which allows materials to “self-assemble” into 3D structures, was initially proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member Skylar Tibbits in April of this year. Tibbits and his team combined a strand of plastic with a layer made out of “smart” material that could self-assemble in water.

“We advanced this concept by creating composite materials that can morph into several different, complicated shapes based on a different physical mechanism,” said Dunn. “The secret of using shape memory polymer fibers to generate desired shape changes of the composite material is how the architecture of the fibers is designed, including their location, orientation and other factors.”

The CU-Boulder team’s findings were published last month in the journal Applied Physics Letters. The paper was co-authored by Qi “Kevin” Ge, who joined MIT as a postdoctoral research associate in September.

“The fascinating thing is that these shapes are defined during the design stage, which was not achievable a few years ago,” said Qi.

The CU-Boulder team demonstrated that the orientation and location of the fibers within the composite determines the degree of shape memory effects like folding, curling, stretching or twisting. The researchers also showed the ability to control those effects by heating or cooling the composite material.

Qi says 3D printing technology, which has existed for about three decades, has only recently advanced to the point that active fibers can be incorporated into the composites so their behavior can be predictably controlled when the object is subjected to thermal and mechanical forces.

The technology promises exciting new possibilities for a variety of applications. Qi said that a solar panel or similar product could be produced in a flat configuration onto which functional devices can be easily installed. It could then be changed to a compact shape for packing and shipping. After arriving at its destination, the product could be activated to form a different shape that optimizes its function.

As 3D printing technology matures with more printable materials and higher resolution at larger scales, the research should help provide a new approach to creating reversible or tunable 3D surfaces and solids in engineering like the composite shells of complex shapes used in automobiles, aircraft and antennas.

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Announcing BioCoder

We’re pleased to announce BioCoder, a newsletter on the rapidly expanding field of biology. We’re focusing on DIY bio and synthetic biology, but we’re open to anything that’s interesting.

Why biology? Why now? Biology is currently going through a revolution as radical as the personal computer revolution. Up until the mid-70s, computing was dominated by large, extremely expensive machines that were installed in special rooms and operated by people wearing white lab coats. Programming was the domain of professionals. That changed radically with the advent of microprocessors, the homebrew computer club, and the first generation of personal computers. I put the beginning of the shift in 1975, when a friend of mine built a computer in his dorm room. But whenever it started, the phase transition was thorough and radical. We’ve built a new economy around computing: we’ve seen several startups become gigantic enterprises, and we’ve seen several giants collapse because they couldn’t compete with the more nimble startups.

We’re seeing the same patterns in biology today. You can build homebrew lab equipment for a fraction of the price of commercial equipment; we’re seeing amateurs do meaningful research and experimentation; and we’re seeing new tools that radically drop the cost of experimentation. We’re also seeing new startups that have the potential for changing the economy as radically as the advent of inexpensive computing.

BioCoder is the newsletter of the biology revolution. Its goal is to connect the many people working in DIY bio, from postdocs who feel limited by the constraints of professional funding to high school students just starting to explore. We’ll be doing virtual tours of DIY labs and biology hackerspaces, bring you up to date on important projects such as the 3D BioPrinter and the Glowing Plant, and give you ideas for new experiments and useful tools. We’d like it to be a forum where you can ask questions, ranging from “is anyone working on this?” to “how do I build a gene gun?”

We don’t know when the biology revolution will come to fruition, any more than the hackers of the mid-70s could envision the web, Google, or the iPhone. But we know that something big is happening, and we want to be a part of it. We believe that you’ll want to be a part of it, too. That’s why we’re publishing BioCoder.


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