Granite Geek: You know how 3D printing has been a dud? Well, maybe not ... 

  • Students from UNH-Manchester look at a device from Cellink that 3D prints biological material during BioHackNH in 2018. Cellink and UNH-Manchester are part of the biotech complex growing in the Queen City. Courtesy of UNH-Manchester

Published: 8/12/2019 4:58:30 PM

You’ve probably heard of the technology hype cycle, which goes like this: Something new is developed and everybody thinks it’s going to change the world, but it falls short so everybody gives up on it. Finally, when nobody’s looking, the real potential slowly develops. 

Over the years I’ve followed 3D printing through the first two stages: “It changes everything!” and then “It’s a complete dud!”

Now, judging from a conference going on at Dartmouth College right now, 3D printing is moving into the third stage: “Sometimes it’s very useful in ways we didn’t expect.”

“I’m a chemist. Previously it was: Chemists should not be in this field – it’s a mechanical field,” said Chenfeng Ke, assistant professor at Dartmouth. “But now chemists, biomedical engineers, material scientists, mechanical engineers ... are all working on it.”

Ke is one organizer of “3D Printing 2019: An Interdisciplinary Additive Manufacturing Symposium,” taking place in Hanover on Monday and today.

“Additive manufacturing” is the serious term for 3D printing, because it manufactures things by adding up layer upon layer of material. If you’ve seen a 3D printer in operation at a local library or school, the thing being manufactured was probably a plastic tchotchke. But nobody at Dartmouth was talking about Dungeons and Dragons figurines.

Consider the titles of a few talks on the program: “Pseudopolyrotaxanes 3D Printed Implants for Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment,” or “Multiresolution Implicit Surfaces for Fluid Simulation,” or the eye-opening “3D/4D Printing of Architectured Materials.”

Holy cow: Now they’re printing stuff in the fourth dimension! (Alas, not really: It turns out that “4D printing” means the use of materials that can change shape after the manufacturing is done.)

At first the promise of 3D printing involved making hard materials in novel ways, creating mechanical parts that were stronger or lighter or more efficient because they had shapes that traditional manufacturing couldn’t do. But much of the focus of the Dartmouth conference involves softer materials, including materials that can be part of living things.

In particular, the Dartmouth gathering isn’t talking about sintering, a form of 3D printing in which the material is hardened by the application of lasers. Sintering is important in the 3D printing of metals.

That decision was made partly for logistics, said Ke. The field has just gotten too big. “It has been extended so large that it is difficult to capture all of it,” he said.

It makes sense to focus on soft materials because in New Hampshire, the hottest area of 3D printing involves building up biological cells or living tissue or blood vessels or even, one day, complete organs.

The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, an R&D consortium in the Manchester Millyard, gets the most attention in this area but related biotech firms have been percolating in New Hampshire for a while. Some folks hope it can play a role in the state’s economy as big as textiles did in the past.

Above and beyond the scientific and technical issues, there’s a good capitalism reason to focus on biomechanical printing.

“To make a breakthrough you really need strong industry support. Most of the money in the field is biomedical; there’s a lot of profit in it,” said Ke.

I also learned of an unexpected – unexpected to me, anyway – area of interest: Using 3D printing to give robots soft components, so they can shape-shift as needed or perform delicate operations with squishy fingers instead of doing rugged things with rigid clamps. For example, one of the Dartmouth talks has the intriguing, or maybe scary, title of “Robotic Morphing Matter.”

“Soft robotics is a very strong field that shows promise,” said Ke. “The sky is the limit of the imagination; you just have to be brave to think about other possibilities.”

Such wide-ranging areas of interest are one reason Dartmouth is holding this symposium, its first in 3D printing.

“This is a very interdisciplinary area ... the mechanical engineers are in their meeting, computer scientists in theirs, polymer chemists in chemistry meetings – and they don’t cross-talk,” said Ke. “To further promote the field, it’s really important to break these boundaries and introduce leaders to talk with each other.

“When they see the progress in each other’s field, and I believe this will encourage the collaboration across the field and rapidly promote the growth of the capability of additive manufacturing,” he said.

No offense to Dungeons and Dragons, but that sounds a lot more exciting than making a plastic halfling bard.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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