Stereolithography and the Future of Bioprinting


Article by Chris Price | 908 words

As we continue breaching the new frontier of what we once thought was the future, we will find ourselves unconsciously looking back. Having already reached, conquered, moved past and grown accustomed to those quaint novelties from our past, those same ones are formerly considered “unfathomable depths” from yesteryear. The surgeons and graphic technicians, in this case, are the chief promulgators of this new gospel, which is soon to be preached by practice. This is done so through the healing of the sick by creating organs ex nihilo or “out of nothing.”

Fusion 3 Design

Credit: Fusion 3 Design

Surgeons and graphic technicians are the once unthought-of, but nowadays, yet ever so important nexus harbingering a new field within medicine. “Healing” is only moments away from achieving almost science fiction-like feats seen only in television shows like Grey’s Anatomy. The merging of opposites, though, as modeled in our capitalistic state, has many a time proven to be beneficial for both parties, even with the inscriptions on our coins, accentuating the good that comes from unity in diversity.

What makes this new tool called “printing” so special? And how is it any different than the machine plugged into the word processor I’m using this very moment? The answer is clear in the history. In the beginning there was Charles Hull, who one day in 1980 contrived the idea of somewhat consumer-based hardware classified under what is now called “stereolithography.”

What is Stereolithography?

Stereolithography, the word originally coined by Hull in 1986, simply means “the study of solid stone/rock,” referring to the finished product of computer generated 3-D images constructed through additive manufacturing. An example is that one layer of material is added on top of another layer of material to create a solid structure from the base up. The “adding of layers” is done by an automated laser that recreates what’s “exported” from the design screen in something similar to our common ink-jet printers, yet efficiently maximizing vertical space, rather than only horizontal.

Three-dimensional printing is not merely an invention. Stereolithography is in itself an up-and-coming industry with only a few drawbacks worth mentioning. Today is the best day to invest in it, because the only way this new field can logically go is up.

Considering its current “drawbacks,” in a CNN interview, Hull listed the three barriers keeping 3-D printing hardware somewhat contained within its “prototype” status: “material properties, speed [and] making millions of things,” he said.

What Materials are used in Bioprinting?

Regarding the “material properties” issue, particularly in the case of bioprinting, the main question is, what do we use as “stuff” when putting everything together? Printing a human heart, for example. The human body has an irremediable tendency to reject almost anything that “shouldn’t be there” Which is a naturally good, but sometimes unfavorable quality. Although the software to design the heart may be present, the materials that can be used for constructing—and effectively using—it are, at this time, absent. That, and, considering the printing of anything from an economical perspective, whatever materials are used will have to be relatively cheap and abundantly available for widespread use, otherwise these printers will suffer the same fate as arcade machines, stocking the extra rooms of wealthy collectors for cocktail parties and mere nostalgia’s sake.

Printing Speed and Purpose

Regarding the “speed” issue, plainly said, it has to be fast. The designing and printing of a wrenchhas to be faster than a two-way trip to Home Depot. If it’s not, there’s hardly any more value in printing one than picking up a traditionally constructed one—apart from its customizable properties.

I’ve been privileged to observe the Makerspace Cart in action at Elon University. It’s a standard printer that can use a variety of materials in the form of dust-like filaments to create art. The speed is undoubtedly vexatious. Nonetheless, the results are enrapturing, but from a creativity perspective. This leads into the third, and last, barrier.

Regarding the “making millions of things” issue, this is a speed and purpose driven problem that needs resolving. Speed was explained previously. And purpose, why would anyone consider making several copies of anything? From a manufacturing standpoint, the printers would be effective if the materials issue is resolved. Notwithstanding, companies in that industry already have similar capabilities with existing industrial machinery, and their place in this is irrelevant considering that stereolithography is a field focusing mainly on detail or quality over quantity.

Results were enrapturing, but only from a creative and artistic perspective, and not from a practical usage perspective. This issue may seem unconnected to stereolithography’s bioprinting concentration. Seeing the printing of organs indisputably has practical uses, but it is connected. As “purpose” for practical uses of stereolithography goes upward—rather than remaining in the stagnant, creativity-only category—its present boundaries will likewise logically be pushed further.

This is due in fact that attention given to the field, coupled with industrial science’s naturally selective, new idea generating process, will ultimately progress stereolithography as a whole. This is similar to the connection that exists between smartphone technological innovations and the progression of several other fields—high definition picture/video capture and display, social media software, and so on.

My thought, as optimistic as it may be, is that progression in the field of stereolithography as a whole will trickle-down to progression in the important, yet subsidiary categories within it. This includes bioprinting and will hopefully be achieved in a more realistic way than Reagan’s 1980s economic ideology.

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