3D printing human 2.0

By Dr Juan Schutte, R&D engineer at UoA’s Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab

The opening scene of HBO’s Westworld contains awe-inspiring scenes where robots (aided by the dramatic musical score) work to replicate and manufacture humans and animals. This concept of recreating/manufacturing human anatomy is extremely popular within science fiction. Much like the evolution of Star Trek’s transponder to the modern mobile phone, there are many advances in the world of 3D printing which seek to make such technologies a reality.

Depictions such as Westworld often tell a dystopian/cautionary tale, thankfully the truth is far more benevolent with much of this research motivated by the complex needs of human healthcare. Researchers are leveraging scanning/digitisation practices with the aim to create solutions which better conform to user needs, dramatically increasing patient comfort and treatment efficacy.

During COVID-19, Bellus3D leveraged the advances in smart phone camera scanning to empower individuals to 3D print facial form fitting mechanism/tools to improve mask fit and efficiency. Similarly, ActivArmour and The University of Auckland’s Professor Olaf Diegel, have demonstrated how medical splint or plaster cast technology can be improved by leveraging scanning and 3D printing techniques. Recently, The New Zealand Artificial Limb Service demonstrated a similar approach which enabled improvements in prosthetic technology, reducing user discomfort and overcoming status quo manufacturing limitations.

These techniques have also improved treatment opportunities within the body. Processing files from established medical scanning techniques and leveraging advances in multi-material printing has empowered surgeons to non-invasively perform trials/evaluations/techniques, and better collaborate with international expertise prior to surgery. Similarly, Ossis (a Christchurch-based company) developed a range of titanium 3D printed orthopaedic implants with advanced topologies and lattice structures which enabled better part conformity and integration within the patient.

Additionally, motivated by the internationally increasing demands for donor organs and tissues, researchers are rapidly advancing the technology’s ability to replicate patient anatomy using biological materials. Commonly referred to as Bioprinting this technique uses a patient’s own cells, digital data and 3D printing to manufacture life-saving tissues or organs. While not yet common practice and with many physiological challenges to overcome (such as tissue/organ vascularity), experts agree that this reality of ‘Human 2.0’ is one of the near future.

Dr. Juan Schutte works at the University of Auckland’s Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab as an R&D Engineer consulting with industry and academia on the opportunities of 3D printing.

The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Xpress Engineer NZ, NZ Engineering News or the parent company, Hayley Media.