Spotlight on Science: 3D Printing

I don’t mean to brag, but I have a seriously awesome amount of science kitsch. Fossils? Check. Dr McNinja statue? Check. SNP chip, flies in ethanol, that signature you saw, tiny dinosaurs, a bronze medal from the 2009 biology olympiad? Check, check, check.

The only reason I still remember what this is, is because of HUBS. Thanks, HUBS.
A tiny model of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter!

But I would be lying if I didn’t say one of my FAVOURITE things that exists in my pit of science is my 3D models of proteins, which has given rise to this Spotlight on the development and awesomeness of 3D printing.

It’s basically just like printing, but instead of putting layers of ink onto paper to make words, you make tiny layers of stuff to build up to a big thing. (A+ for scientific terminology right there). But think about it; lots of squares on top of each other make a cube, right? It would be time consuming to build a model this way by hand, but computers are really quick at things.

Here’s a video that shows you all that quite well with a pumping track:

So that’s how it works at Shapeways (which is, conincidentally, where I got my beautiful toys from) – there are other methods as well, including digital light processing, which creates SOLID OUT OF LIQUIDS USING LASERS.(if that doesn’t make you want to yell “The future is now!” I don’t know what will.). Some methods melt or soften material (often with lasers), and some cut thin layers and then join them together.

Dodecahedron, screw, and toroidal coil, all made out of sugar.

All my beautiful proteins are made out of the polymer mentioned above. There are printers that work with metals, and they are perishingly expensive. There’s also a printing system called CandyFab that uses granulated sugar and compressed air to print (nearly) edible 3-dimensional things.

(They’re not quite food-grade yet; the technology is still in early stages, but look at the potential for increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes! And, of course, cake decoration.)

So, this stuff has come a long way since the first method of 3D printing was patented in 1979. Like most things, it took a while before the techniques and machines used to do them stopped being large, expensive, and limited (I mean, look how far the computer has come).

The actual term “3D printing”, which now seems so intuitive, was created when two MIT grad students (Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson) took an inkjet printer and messed with it, so instead of printing ink onto paper, it printed a binding solution onto a bed of powder. It was an innovation that has allowed the development of this technology into what it is today.

Insulin molecule (
Insulin molecule (
HIV protease (
HIV protease (

Uses of this are incredibly useful for creating rapid prototypes, which has serious implications on an industrial level. I was first drawn in at the educational benefits of this technology; DNA and proteins can seem so esoteric. Certainly when I received my package in the mail, it helped crystallize my understanding of how acetylcholine works, as well as making me wish I had purchased the acetylcholine receptor.

As the cost of this continues to decrease, I hope it becomes practical to have several models of proteins, DNA, and other molecules in classrooms and teaching laboratories. Tangible examples of things really bring home that, while what we’re working with might be invisible to the naked eye, it is still very real.

Sophia, who also has some sort of neurotoxin but couldn’t remember what it was called so did not put up a picture of it.

One thought on “Spotlight on Science: 3D Printing

  1. sandra February 24, 2013 / 7:19 pm

    Did you know that Tauranga is leading the way in 3D printing in this country and right up there with the rest of the world? I bet you did not!

    The guy who spoke at Cafe Scientifique this month is from a company that uses titanium to “print” things, including biomedical parts (such as heart valves).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s