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Science + Tech

The Replicator, No Longer a Star Trek Dream

Already there are machines that replicate themselves. Now people are working on printers that reproduce human organs.

Christian Bergmeister, Michael Kennedy, Matt Lundy and Geoff Turner 22 Jan

Christian Bergmeister, Michael Kennedy, Matt Lundy and Geoff Turner are MA Journalism students at the University of Western Ontario.

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[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with a multi-part, multi-media investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is episode two of eleven, running Fridays.]

Neil Gershenfeld has been known to make some bold predictions about the future. But even by his standards, this one was a doozy.

"Twenty years from now," he told a 2006 conference in Berkeley, "we'll have Star Trek replicators that can make anything."

You remember the replicator -- the one that provided Captain Picard with his cup of "tea, Earl Grey, hot," with a simple verbal prompt? It might sound like jet-age fantasy, but Gershenfeld was absolutely serious with his reference.

For Gershenfeld -- director of the Center for Bits and Atoms, a think-tank at MIT -- the digital age is a low-tech side-road on the way to the real future, a future where building materials think and self-replicate and the distinction between the digital and the physical becomes hopelessly blurred. 

[Video: Neil Gershenfeld's TED talk]

He's also the spiritual father of the philosophy and practice of personal fabrication. In his books When Things Start to Think and Fab, Gershenfeld outlines a future where fabrication technologies become instruments of empowerment.

With this in mind, Gershenfeld conceived of the Fab Labs, communal do-it-yourself (DIY) shops kitted out with the latest in fabrication technology. There, people with no engineering or design expertise could dive into the future head first. In fact, the more unlikely the participant, the better suited they are to Fab Lab, or so says Scott Zitek, director of the Fab Lab at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.

"There is no typical fab labber," he says. "We've got men, women, children, grandparents, truck drivers..."

And that's where Dale Nott comes in. He's seated at a computer in the Elyria Fab Lab, staring at a monitor through Coke bottle lenses in the shade of a ball cap. For Nott, it's week five of an evening class at the Lab. He's here thanks to the urging of another student, his daughter Diane.

At 70, it's been a while since Nott darkened the door of a school. "I ain't been to school in some 50 odd years," he says with a shy chuckle.  The last time he spent time at this college was over 30 years ago. "I helped haul dirt out of here when they were building this place," says the retired truck driver.

He works his mouse with trepidation. He's thoughtfully manipulating an image of a gerbil. He squints and pivots closer until the layout seems right. Minutes later, he's standing over a laser cutter, watching as it etches the image onto an aluminum dog tag.

[Video: At the Fab Lab]

Looking at the humble fruits of his efforts so far, it's easy to snicker. But these are baby steps. Gershenfeld believes that we are missing a reservoir of innovation and creativity. A 70-year-old truck driver brings a lifetime of experience and perception untapped by the machinery of product design. And when you hear the sum total of his high tech experience before he came to Fab Lab, Dale Nott's accomplishment looks a little more significant.

"Tell you the truth," he says, "Before this I ain't never worked a computer in my life."

3D printing gets real

If you could make anything, what would you make?

Steve Larson printed a replacement part for his car, a discontinued rim cap he had been unable to purchase. Unfortunately, the car's manufacturer had stopped producing the specific model Larson needed and he was unable to find a replacement -- until he attended the same Fab Lab night course as Dale Nott. Larson enrolled himself in Introduction to Personal Fabrication where he learned all about the technology that allowed him to reproduce his discontinued rim cap.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing allows a user to make, or print, anything they can design. This technology can produce functional prototypes, concept models and even end-use parts.

The 3D printing process is much like traditional inkjet printing. But instead of the printhead spraying ink, it extrudes microscopic layers of a plastic that has been heated to a pliable state. Before all of that happens, though, a user designs their object on a computer using 3D modeling software. Once the design is complete the information is sent to the 3D printer and then production begins.

Although the technology has yet to receive widespread attention from the mainstream media, 3D printing has been in use for more than 20 years. Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based market research firm, says there are more than 25,000 of the machines in use worldwide. And nearly half of that number have been sold in the last two years alone.

One of the machine's strongest selling points is their ability to cut costs. Chris Vandelaar, a project manager at University Machine Services at the University of Western Ontario, says the machines have saved the university tens of thousands of dollars in manufacturing costs. "You can get 20 parts manufactured, identical to parts produced by a mould, but this way you have lost the high cost of the mould."

[Video: The uPrint Commercial 3D printer]

Kirsten Janeteas is an account manager at Cimetrix Solutions, an Ontario-based company that sells the 3D printers. According to Janeteas, a student from Niagara College used a 3D printer to save a mid-sized manufacturing company hundreds of thousands of dollars. The mechanical engineering student was completing his senior co-op placement at the St. Catharines manufacturing company when they were about to start production on a new item. The Niagara college student suggested the company first produce a functional prototype with a 3D printer before they committed money and resources to full-scale manufacturing. The company was unfamiliar with the technology but agreed to stall production until a prototype was produced.

The student then used the 3D printer at his college to print out the different components for the company's design. When the components were assembled the engineers discovered critical design flaws. Janeteas says the following day the president of the St. Catharines company called and ordered a 3D printer.

"That's not my sales pitch, that's just a true story about how 3D printing can enable companies to become more efficient, more innovative and to save them from huge, huge costly mistakes."

The printer that can print itself

A simple plastic button lies on a table in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It wasn't bought at a sewing shop or the button factory. It was made using a machine that prints three-dimensional objects. It's called a RepRap.

Also known as a replicating rapid-prototyper, a RepRap is capable of taking user-created designs and making objects. It's basically a 3D printer that is controlled by a computer and builds objects by applying layer after layer of plastic until they are complete. The best trick the RepRap can do? It can print out most of the parts to make itself.

Nick McCoy owns the RepRap in Ann Arbor. It's a Darwin model, named after the famous biologist, and cost McCoy about $500 to build over two years. For McCoy, it's been worth the wait.

"The rewards are certainly there. To see this thing print out a part... that's a really good feeling," said McCoy.

According to Adrian Bowyer, the creator of RepRap, being able to customize designs and print them out yourself is one of the major appeals of RepRap. Bowyer is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Bath in England and started the project in 2004.

[Video: the Ann Arbor RepRap]

The inspiration for the RepRap came from the symbiotic relationship between flowers and insects. In that relationship, flowers give insects nectar and the insects help the flowers pollinate. Bowyer wondered if a similar relationship could exist between a human being and a machine.

"Why don't we make a machine that copies itself and that is also capable of providing the people that do the copying with consumer goods?" asked Bowyer.

A wide variety of objects that can be printed on the RepRap, from a chess set to an engagement ring. The machine is well on its way to achieving its objective of complete self-replication. Right now, it can print about 50 per cent of its own parts.

Once a person builds a RepRap, they are encouraged to make one for a friend, said Bowyer. That idea is reinforced by RepRap owners like McCoy. "I hope to build as many of these systems, working for as many people in Michigan as I can. Then I hope those people will help other people build it, so the RepRap project itself can spread a lot faster," said McCoy.

Open-sourcing is also helping further the development of the RepRap project. Bowyer explained that he wanted a powerful technology like the RepRap to be available to everyone, so he made it free. A list of materials needed for a RepRap and the instructions on how to put it together are all available on the RepRap website.

RepRap 2.0, or Mendel, is the newest RepRap model and will be released soon. It will be smaller than the Darwin and able to print larger objects in different materials. While Bowyer said he didn't know what the future would hold for the RepRap, he was curious about its potential.

"It will be interesting to see what changes happen industrially when a large percentage of the population are capable of making things for themselves that they used to buy," said Bowyer. 

Your organs? There's a printer for that

Picture a rambunctious five-year-old horsing around in his father's tool shed -- who cuts his finger in an accident. The rapidly growing, and unhappy, toddler would healing in days or weeks. He'd be as good as new, disaster averted.

So what if machines could harness your body's natural ability to regulate and repair itself? What if that meant medical patients needing procedures, like heart transplants, could avoid wait times for donations? The future of fabrication could answer those questions with organ printing. 

"This is a really young field, where you use a 3-D printer to make a biological structure," says Dr. Gabor Forgacs, a professor at the University of Missouri. "Eventually the idea is that this printing process will lead to replacement organs. It may sound like science fiction, but it really isn't."

[Video: Dr. Gabor Forgacs on organ printing]

The key to organ printing is that the human body is the ultimate maker. Unlike a MakerBot or RepRap, these 3D printers will extrude bio-ink -- a liquid-like material containing your own cells. When the material is printed into a 3D structure, the cells will self-assemble the rest, and eventually produce a functional organ.

The implications of this research are vast and far-reaching, says Forgacs, but the main reason for doing it is simple.

"The biggest problem for mankind today is that there aren't enough organ donors," he says. "Most people die before a suitable donor is found."

That same desire to help patients waiting for donations is what motivates Dr. Vladimir Mironov, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. For him, manufacturing organs could exponentially increase a patient's quality of life, and put an end to the current system of donations.

"At the end of the day, you have a huge population of old people -- all these baby boomers -- and they want to have a good life," he says. "The idea is that if I can print functional, human organs using human cells, then there's no need for organ donations. So no more waiting lines, forever."

Not yet a machine to replicate wisdom

Neither Forgacs nor Mironov can predict when organ printing will actually benefit the public. Researchers have to clear multiple hurdles. Currently, printed organs have a mucous-like consistency, and are too weak for extensive handling. An even bigger problem is that scientists must also replicate blood vessels so that perfusion -- the nutritive delivery of blood and fluids during surgery -- can allow for transplantation.

"If you don't have vasculature, whatever you print will die in one hour," says Mironov. "Human organs can only be alive if you have constant perfusion of blood."

Despite the uncertainty around organ printing, Forgacs remains enthused with its possibilities. He envisions a future where people can live at the peak of their physical and mental abilities.

"The problem is that at the beginning of your life, you're very healthy, but you don't appreciate it. Later you appreciate it, but you're not that healthy," he says. "The goal is not just to print you back failing organs, but to benefit from life with not only mental wisdom, but physical wisdom and physical possibilities."  [Tyee]

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