Thanks to 3D printing, American society may be about to boldly go where no one has gone before.
A Johns Hopkins scientist is seeking to adapt the technology to grow human jaw bones — potentially revolutionizing implant procedures. A Halethorpe entrepreneur created a 3D model of a blind woman that allowed her to "see" herself for the first time. And the technique's potential to aid visual arts and science museums is a featured part of the three-day American Alliance of Museums conference in the Inner Harbor.
3D printing, or the process of crafting a physical object from a digital model, is poised to become a force to be reckoned with in modern life. Some applications are so mind-boggling that they were declared impossible in the 1990s sci-fi television series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"3D printing is a wave breaking over us," said Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums, which is part of the museums alliance. "It's uncharted, it's wide open, and the potential applications are endless."
Staff members of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago will discuss their forays into the new technology on Wednesday at the conference.
One year after convening the first 3D hackathon, the Met is selling the digital data for some artifacts, so replicas can be created and studied in homes and classrooms outside New York.
Chicago's Art Institute has held public demonstrations of the technique. The Baltimore Museum of Art used 3D scanning to glean insights into two sculptures crafted by the artist Henri Matisse, while the Walters Art Museum created figurines that generated data for a scientist exploring how touch influences the aesthetic experience.
3D printing will also challenge society. The technology can be used to make custom-designed running shoes (potentially upending existing systems for manufacturing and distributing goods), coins in and out of circulation, and most notoriously, a functional gun.
There are even 3D printers that make 3D printers.
President Barack Obama singled out the emerging technology in his State of the Union address, saying that 3D printing "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
Though 3D printing has been available since the early 1980s, it was so difficult, inefficient and expensive that almost no one used it. Now, the machines are about to go mass market and may soon be as ubiquitous as the cellphone or personal computer.
"It's only been in the past two years that they've come down in price and have become commercially feasible for industrial users," said Michael Raphael, president of Direct Dimensions Inc., an Owings Mills firm that made a crack-free version of the Liberty Bell that was rung in Normandy on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. "The next big story is going to be the proliferation of the consumer-grade printer."
The Smithsonian, for instance, purchased its first 3D printer in 2010 and now has seven. Merritt estimates that perhaps a dozen of the alliance's roughly 3,000 members currently own a 3D printer. The Hopkins bioengineering lab didn't get its first machine until last year.
This month, Staples became the first major U.S. retailer to sell an in-home 3D printer, according to a company press release. The Cube (made by 3D Systems) can make plastic items up to five inches tall, wide and long, and retails for $1,300. Now, the Cube can be purchased only online, but in June, the machines will be available in some brick-and-mortar stores.
By 2015, 3D printing sales and services are expected to reach $3.7 billion worldwide, according to a 2012 report by Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based consulting firm that tracks the emerging industry. By 2019, sales and services could surpass the $6.5 billion.
Here's how 3D printing, technically known as "additive manufacturing," works, as explained by Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, 3D digitalization officers for the Smithsonian Institution who are participating in the Museums conference:
Let's say someone wanted to design and build the perfect coffee cup.
First he'd create virtual blueprints for the ideal mug, selecting the size, weight and shape using computer-aided design or animation modeling software. Those virtual blueprints are cut into paper-thin slices digitally, in much the same way that you'd slice a whole pineapple into rounds, and sent to the 3D printer.
A layer of liquid or powdered material — made from practically anything — is injected onto the bottom of the machine. As each cross-section is added, it's fused to the layer below. High-end printers fuse with lasers, while basic models use hot-glue guns.
While computer-aided design requires a sophisticated skill set, copying an existing item is within the reach of average users. In fact, Todd Blatt, 30, of Halethorpe, teamed up last September with a 14-year-old boy to demonstrate the procedure at the Walters' Art Bytes hackathon.
The pair photographed two statues from the Walters collection from every conceivable angle using their cellphone cameras. Then, they used free software to convert those images into digital blueprints.
"I'm able to sculpt with lots of materials, from cheese to titanium," said Blatt, 30, who owns a company called Custom 3D Stuff that crafts everything from movie props to plastic and metal jewelry.
Last February, at the Farpoint science fiction convention in Timonium, Blatt stumbled upon a new use for 3D printing.
"After I did my presentation, a lady who was blind came up to me," he said. "She told me she didn't have any sense of what she looks like."
When the woman touched another person's face, her fingertips provided the sensory impressions to create a mental image. But, when she touched her own face, the feedback from her facial skin interfered with the feedback from her fingertips.
"I was able to print out a 3D sculpture of her, and for the first time, she was able to tell what she looked like," Blatt said.
In fact, the printer is similar in concept to the "replicator" in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" that could conjure up "tea, Earl Grey, hot." In real life, NASA expects to have a $125,000 contract with a Texas-based engineering corporation by the end of the week to "print" such food as pizzas using powdered forms of existing nutrients that could be used for space travel, according to NASA spokesman David Steitz.
Systems and Materials Research Consultancy writes that their system potentially could help "avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars."
The "Star Trek: the Next Generation Technical Manual" states that replicator technology available in the 24th century wasn't sophisticated enough "to recreate living objects."
But Hopkins scientist Warren Grayson is trying to do just that.
Grayson, an assistant professor of biochemical engineering, is using a 3D printer to help construct a six-centimeter portion of the lower jaw.
His team is printing out a biodegradable polymer mold, or "scaffold." Stem cells harvested from a patient whose jaw has been destroyed could be inserted into the scaffold, and the cells would be given chemical cues to grow into bone.
"This would be the first biological implant, and it would give us a much better outcome than our current best-case scenario," said Grayson, noting that the technique is still years away from being implanted in real patients. "It's exciting, and it's kind of like science fiction."
Grayson's colleagues at other research institutions are going a step further and working with soft tissue. Last month, the San Diego-based Organovo Inc. announced in a news release that it had "printed" a tiny amount of liver tissue that lived for five days outside the human body.
The potential of the rapidly emerging technology excites some people and worries others.
"Some people see 3D printing and project only results that are good, while others project only results that are not so good," said Michael Weinberg, an attorney and vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based digital advocacy group.
"I call it the mirror fallacy. On balance, I think we'll be richer as a society for having 3D printing, just as we're richer for having electricity and airplanes and the Internet. They, too, were once considered disruptive technologies. Disruptions help us grow and renew. Without disruptions, we'd become stagnant."