Incredible New 3D Printing Technique Looks Like Sci-Fi

Jeff DelVisco,

A new innovation by Carbon3D, unveiled Monday at the TED2015conference, could finally move 3D printing out of the hobby shop and onto every factory floor.

Imagine you're in an emergency room with a blood vessel blockage. To save your life, a surgeon will first insert a tube, and carefully guide it through the clog. Then she might insert a stent, a piece metal or fabric mesh, to keep the vessel open. But that piece of hardware isn't made to fit your body. Carbon3D can make one that does.

"The idea that you could produce a biodegradable stent that takes in your own anatomy and the tributaries of your blood vessels while you're on the catheter table in an emergency room — that's an amazing new future that is now in reach," said Joseph DeSimone, CEO and co-founder of Carbon3Dand a chemistry professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

The medical potential of the Carbon3D process, created by a research team in North Carolina headed by DeSimone, isn't even the main point. Rather, the real game changer is the fact that their completely new approach involves growing—rather than printing—3D objects. DeSimone told Popular Mechanics that their grown objects are already finding their way into a range of industries from medical to automotive. There's even one growing parts for Hollywood films.

A brief history of 3D printing

It all started in Japan with a tiny house that took 4.5 hours to build. It was made of plastic and measured 2.5 inches across and 2 inches high and had "partitions, furniture, and stairs." It was one of the first 3D printed items to ever exist. That was 1981.

In the 34 years since those first 3D models emerged from vats of chemical stew, 3D printing has been used in the air, on roads, and inside our bodies (or as replacement parts for them). And the MakerStuff, oh, the MakerStuff. But 3D printing has remained on the DIY and manufacturing fringes because the build process is slow and the parts are too weak to go into most working machines.

Think of the old way of 3D printing as a kind of plastic (or sometimes metal or biological) pancake stacking factory. Layers of polymer are laid down—sometimes preheated, sometimes hardened by laser light. It's slow (even small objects can take hours) and what comes out is pretty weak thanks to all those layers.

"In many ways, traditional 3D printing is actually 2D printing over and over again," said DeSimone. "But we actually grow parts continuously out of liquid resin puddle, and can do it really, really fast, at hundreds to thousands of millimeters an hour."