Posts Tagged 3D printing

Life, extended Robert Hickson Jun 07

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Myths and legends, as well as more recent stories, have cautionary tales about those seeking immortality. But there are still those who long not just for a few more years of life, but decades extra before shuffling off this mortal coil.

There seems plenty going on in the life extension world at the moment. Some good serious research, and others more aspirational fancies.

First up, the “golden age” Paleolithic life style promoted by John Durant (and others). This is a low tech dietary approach through avoidance of grains and dairy products. Paleolithic women and men weren’t known for longevity (short, sharp and brutal lives, most likely), but sure a better diet probably doesn’t hurt. But who amongst us will stick to such a plan for a few months, let alone a lifetime?

Then there’s the medicated route. Not just vitamins (and lots of them, al la Ray Kurzweil), but also the promise of tablets or elixirs formulated from sirtuin 1 (SIRT1)-like compounds. Can this translate from mice in a lab to our real world? Seems to me like a silver bullet too simple to counter our genetic and environmental diversity.

Cryogenics is back! Admittedly, the current use is to buy just a few hours time for fatal wounds and injuries while the emergency teams try to sort out the mess.  Still, it could be an attractive latch ditch effort by some to stop time until a particular cure is found.  Frozen? “Let it go!”, say I.

Next, the 3D print option where you could, perhaps, replace your failing or broken body parts with printed to order new bits. Progress on printing organs is moving quickly;  Kidneyskull, blood vessels (at least little ones). Could we print a heart?  What about a whole body? One NASA engineer suggests that this could be how we colonise planets.

This is cloning 2.0, without the same moral and ethical dilemmas. But with its own particular set we haven’t yet fully grappled with.

A more proactive but challenging option to get to extreme longevity is Aubrey de Grey’s mission to undertake cellular and molecular repairs to slow or stop ageing in the first place. He talked with Kim Hill a few weeks ago

Charlotte Allen has a very good article about him, and the Paleo-diet folk. De Grey’s talk of soon having the one thousand year old man blows his credibility away. As does his metaphor of humans being just like a car or another machine, with readily replaceable parts. This seems common amongst those who see humans, and other organisms, as “hackable”. As is the focus on technological fixes divorced from broader environmental factors.

Allen points out that more conventional scientists consider de Grey’s focus on seven cellular and molecular pathways is too simplistic.

Lastly, is the transhumanist quest where we just become one with the machine. There is still a very long way (if there is a way at all) to go from inserting false memories into mice to uploading a whole brain.

Allen highlights the fact that most of those involved in extreme life extension are male. I’m not convinced by her suggestions that this is because the male of the species is more likely to be attracted to the demanding regimes typically required of them, or because the cult-like status appeals more. The sample size is too small. She also suggests that loss of religious faith in the west may be a factor stimulating the pursuit of longevity, though some surveys don’t indicate atheists are any more likely than theists in aspiring to longer lives.

The big questions associated with such aspirations are “why seek to push the limits of life span?”, “even if we can should we?”, and “what are the consequences if we do?”

We’ve already dramatically extended life spans by decades over the last few hundred years, thanks to better nutrition, living conditions, and medicines. As Vaupel noted [Pdf] people are entering old age in better health. Blakely & Woodward illustrate in their recent blog that death rates in NZ continue to decline

For example, on average cancer treatment enables patients to live six years longer [Pdf] than 40 years ago

Prospects for nanobots roving our bloodstream to kill and fix may have moved closer with reports of “Magnetosperm” potentially able to carry drugs to hard to reach places

So what’s different about further adding to our lifespan?  Some ethicists see nothing wrong with seeking to extend life dramatically, if it helps save lives If we and our parents have benefited from longer lives, what right do we have to limit our descendants life spans?

Living longer doesn’t tend to appeal to the masses at the moment (in the US at least, where, ironically many of the life extenders seem to reside)  This seems to be because we don’t equate “quantity” of live with its quality. Who wants to live an extra 50 years if it’s just a longer stay in a rest home? And will having more oldies add too much financial burden to societies?

However, quality of old age, at least for affluent folk, does seem to be improving.  But more needs to be done about understanding what contributes to the quality of old age to inform research and policy.

Vaupel pointed out that deterioration of the body is postponed not reduced. So rather than focusing on longer life, its more probable that most of the research will be directed to improving the quality of our years. More active centenarians rather than a few 150 year olds. Some of those pursuing extreme longevity may make valuable contributions to that.

Vaupel highlights some life style implications of more people living longer. If living well to over a hundred becomes more certain, why spend your first two or three decades in the education system, then having families and careers, and then many decades of leisure? You could mix these up (particularly if technologies continue to develop that assist later reproduction).

Societies with lots more old people are also likely to result in policies that benefit them rather than the younger generations, who may also not have the educational and work opportunities that their seniors had.  .

What happens if, on top of this, you have lots more robots and computers taking over the more traditional blue and white collar jobs, while the oldies refuse to stop working?

But what if the youth of the day are more than happy to leave the work to the old folks – if they have enough money – to pursue their own fulfilling, creative lives or “find themselves”?

The epic of Gilgamesh still says it well:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”


Hold your 3D printed horses Robert Hickson Dec 09

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Why would I go to a supermarket to print a cheap plastic imitation of myself, or a loved one? (When) will I be able to just cut out the middle grocer, and most of the supply chain and print my own real bananas at home?

I’ve previously noted  that 3D printing may not be the great disruptor that some claim. Booz & Co, using a more robust framework, take a similar view. They point out that you need to look beyond just the falling costs of 3D printers for home use. Economies of scale mean that large companies will pay less than small firms and hobbyists for the raw materials used by such printers (be those materials plastics, metals, or anything else).  So, except for serious DIY types, many in the future will probably still get their widgets from the big boys.

Printing food too, despite hype from companies like Natural Machines, will also face similar cost challenges.

The report from Booz & Co suggests that the impact trajectory of 3D printing will be more like gas ovens than microchips. People don’t buy as many ovens (or printers) as computers.

They do note, though, that 3D printing will (and already is in some niche areas) shake up manufacturing considerably.

As Callaghan Innovation has already spotted, there will be good market opportunities for firms to produce powder formulations of metals, such as titanium, that can be used for 3D printing.

There are also opportunities to develop more environmentally friendly replacements for the plastics used in 3D printing

It will also pay not to get too excited that you, or your local hospital, doctor’s surgery, or neighbourhood Warehouse Anatomy shop will be able to print new body parts on demand . Top of the line expertise and hygiene will be required there.

Booz & Co’s paper is good to bear in mind when reading about other “revolutionary” technologies.

A 3D printed microbattery Robert Hickson Jun 23

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The research uses of 3D printing are rapidly diversifying. The latest application is a lithium ion microbattery (subscription to Advanced Materials required to read full article). Unlike existing thin film batteries this printed microbattery is reported to have a similar performance to commercial batteries. Potential applications are for micro-robots and implantable medical devices.

The critical issues for these batteries will be their ability to hold enough charge to make them feasible for their intended uses, and to be able to be easily produced in large quantities.

Few will probably have concerns about uses in medical devices, but with current disquiet over electronic surveillance, swarms of autonomous micro-robots (government or privately controlled) are sure to meet resistance.

Think before you 3D print Robert Hickson Mar 24


Oh, the wondrous things coming off printers these days – houses, bone, and gun parts . See more examples at Mashable. Some gush about 3D printing following the personal computer trajectory

However, Wired has an article on the future of 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) that is less bullish about it being the future of manufacturing. While exhibiting plenty of growth potential, the report endorses an earlier Deloitte analysis that concludes that while many people will soon be able to buy their own 3D printer, they won’t be setting up their own manufacturing company. This is largely due to the costs or access to materials to replace many household objects, and the inability to scale up production. As with current home printers, the costs of the consumables rather than the printer will be the limiting factor.

Many large corporations, such as Boeing, are already using the technology to produce prototypes, which are then manufactured by more conventional means. And new services are likely to pop up so you can go and get a replacement part at your local garage or home maintenance store. Remember when you could buy a new element for your kettle rather than having to buy a new kettle? Maybe those days will be coming back.

As an article in Slate noted  one of the longer term benefits of cheap 3D printing may be to help inspire school students to think about industrial design. However, such classes will need to have a stronger theoretical and intellectual underpinning than the woodwork and metal work classes I took at school to have a more revolutionary effect. Taking home crude plastic rabbit sculptures and other doodads to show mum & dad won’t cut it.

Due to costs 3D printing probably won’t have the same influence or reach as Meccano, which reputably inspired several generations of physical scientists and engineers. But it, along with other aspects of “maker” and “hacker” culture are likely to influence how the current and next generation think about manipulating the physical world and designing futures.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek view of future developments in 3D printing to keep an eye out for is also available on the Wired website.


Print the future Robert Hickson Feb 16


Is 3D printing — where objects are built layer by layer (with plastics, or in some cases other materials) via something akin to an ink jet printer — ‘the future’ of manufacturing, or will it largely be the realm of hobbyists churning out useful and kitschy playthings?

At Technology Review Christopher Mims argues that the latter is more likely, although he acknowledges that 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) will have a place in rapid prototyping within existing firms. 3D printing had a large presence at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, with falling costs of hardware and rising numbers of ‘apps’ signalling declining barriers to designing and making your own widgets. Have a look at Thingiverse to see what DIYer’s are already printing.

Tim Maly challenges Christopher’s perspective. While agreeing that current designs and materials are on the whole fairly crappy, he takes a longer view of how this type of manufacturing will play out. Both agree there is plenty of hype at the moment.

Aircraft parts and other industrial components though are being printed and used, as are some body parts. Print your own food and clothes too. You may also want to look at how AUT’s Centre for Rapid Product Development is exploring the potential for additive manufacturing.

3D printing is already entering the classrooms of some secondary schools elsewhere. There are also school competitions for 3D designs. What with robot competitions, PCR machines, and iPads in schools these days, there’s a lot more to stimulate and entice and engage future scientists and engineers.

One analysis suggests that 3D printing may find its niche in the non-mass production zone; producing items in the 10 to 10,000 unit range.

Critical factors for future wider adoption of 3D printing include faster printing, scaling up production, better design tools,  the development of new materials (so high performance objects can be made) and developing standards for these materials. There is also concern brewing over intellectual property issues. Particularly, how IP law may be applied as 3D printing becomes more widely known and tries to maintain an open source ethos. If your future cell phone includes a good 3D scanner will it be OK to scan any object you come across and then go home and recreate it? How about downloading someone else’s design?

On a broader level, it is important to view 3D printing as part of the future manufacturing environment, not as the new environment. A UK Foresight report on Technology and Innovation Futures in the in 2020‘s [PDF, 0.8 MB] notes the rise of manufacturing on demand, helped in part by 3D printing. This report highlights the necessity to consider manufacturing as the provision of services as well as products. Some companies already do this (in the aeronautical sector, for example). In the future, more value may come from the service side of the manufacturing business.

The New Zealand government is keen to boost high value manufacturing. MSI’s Request for Proposals for High Value Manufacturing and Services is out. However, they are looking to invest only around $26 million a year. And this could be spread across a whole range of areas, including geothermal engineering, agricultural technologies, digital content tools, and medical devices. So a relatively small amount of the research money, even if you add in industry co-funding. How well prepared and supported will our manufacturing sector be as other economies put ever greater emphasis on new manufacturing initiatives?

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