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Similarly, Additive Orthopaedics has received FDA clearance for its 3D printed minimally-invasive, intramedullary Bunion Correction System that helps to address alignment and stabilisation of bunions. According to a doctor, this 3D printed implant enables certain features in plates, which cannot be achieved through standard manufacturing processes. For example, one area of the plate can be made to provide additional fixation and strength, to enable the bone to grow onto and through the plate over time. This will support better integration and alignment of bones following a bunion procedure.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the popular names in healthcare, has tied up with companies like Organovo and HP to evaluate the use of 3D bio-printed tissues and other 3D printed healthcare solutions. They have also collaborated with Inkbit, a start-up spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has come up with a unique multi-material 3D printing technology to print complex consumer products with integrated electronics. In April this year, the group also acquired the 3D printing technology from Tissue Regeneration Systems Inc (TRS), to create patient-specific, bioresorbable implants with a unique mineral coating. These implants can be used to support bone healing in patients with orthopaedic and craniomaxillofacial deformities and injuries.

In June this year, a team of researchers at the Boston University College of Engineering revealed a potential treatment for ischemia using a cell-infused 3D printed patch that can guide the growth of new blood vessels. The team tied up with a Boston-based biomedical tech company called Innolign to 3D print vessels on a small scale of 100 microns. The cells had to be infused into the patches in a particular pattern in order to be effective, and that is where 3D printing proved its worth. The inherent flexibility of 3D printing allowed the team to change and test their designs, helping them to discern which patterns worked best. 3D printing also offers them the scalability needed to test their designs in larger, more complex organisms and tissue environments in the future.

From shoes to electronics, everything can be 3D printed

A four-year-old company called Carbon has come up with a photochemical process that uses light and oxygen to produce objects from pools of liquid polymer. This enables faster printing, greater structural integrity and better consistency than conventional methods. The technology is based on stereolithography (SL).

Objects are constructed layer by layer by shining a light into a pool of resin and then hardened into the desired shape. In SL methods, after each layer is printed, the object has to be lifted a microscopic level off the build plate to add another layer. This makes the process slow.

On the other hand, Carbon uses a clear, contact lens-like window in the resin pool, which is permeable to light and oxygen. According to the company, this creates a carefully choreographed balance between the light, which hardens the resin, and oxygen, which inhibits hardening. As a result, the object is created continually, without the need to add layers. This also makes it possible to create truly isotropic objects, which have same characteristics on all three axes. Adidas has tied up with Carbon to produce lightweight and durable midsoles for its 4D line of athletic sneakers.

In June, the Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute (KERI) announced the development of a 3D printing technology capable of printing highly-conductive multiwall carbon nanotubes (MWNTs), which will be very useful in wearables, flexible displays and other such applications. The meniscus-guided 3D printing of highly-conductive MWNT microarchitectures exploits rapid solidification of a fluid ink meniscus formed by pulling a micro-nozzle. The team has designed a polyvinylpyrrolidone-wrapped MWNT ink with uniform dispersion in order to achieve smooth 3D printing without any nozzle clogging. This technique gives scientists a lot of control over the printing process, and can be used to print a variety of microstructures with a high concentration of MWNTs.

Optomec, another global leader in 3D printers, has two unique technologies up its sleeve—Aerosol Jet and LENS. Aerosol Jet is used to 3D print electronics at the micron level, while LENS is a metal printing solution that can be added to computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining systems. Aerosol Jet is an additive manufacturing process that works with a variety of dielectric, conductive, semiconductor and biological inks. It uses aerodynamic focusing to accurately deposit electronic inks onto substrates, printing features ranging from 10 microns to millimetres.

The robotics industry is also an avid user of 3D printing technology. Nanoracing is a two-year-old start-up that makes mini racing drones. Their drones are 3D printed, with absolutely no screws or joints. All the electronic parts fit perfectly into a cavity in the drone.

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