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3D printed blood vessels
Next stop, Star Trek's replicator...
In the science-fiction show Star Trek, spaceships came equipped with machines called replicators that could create any object asked of them.
Today, the nearest technology we have to that sci-fi vision are 3D printers, computer-controlled machines capable of building almost anything - blood vessels, a small plane, even other 3D printers.
silicon.com takes a look at the most outlandish objects that are emerging from 3D printers.
The idea of printing out body parts may sound far-fetched but researchers are already attempting to use 3D printers to produce artificial blood vessels.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany want to print artificial blood vessels so they can be used to supply nutrients to human organs created in the lab.
They intend to make the capillaries in two parts. First, the artificial tubes will be printed out layer by layer inside a 3D inkjet printer. Next, brief pulses of a high-energy laser will be fired at the tubes to alter the structure at an atomic level, in order to give them the elastic properties of natural capillaries. Researchers have carried out these two tasks separately and are working on developing a system that can combine the two tasks to make the blood vessels.
The printed tubes have natural molecules integrated into their walls so that living cells can be attached to the inside of the vessels to form a lining. The lining will allow the vessels to transport the nutrients from the blood to their destination, most likely a lab-grown organ. In the picture, researchers are washing a polymer artificial blood vessel with a solution containing living cells.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute say that in future these vessels could be used to treat heart bypass patients.
Photo: Fraunhofer IGB
3D printed car
This is the first car in the world to be made inside of a printer.
The fetching orange bodywork of the Urbee is made from lightweight body panels that were produced by a 3D printer.
The body panels were printed using additive printing, where layers of material are placed on top of each other and fused or bonded together to build the finished object.
At present, only the single Urbee prototype car exists, but its makers hope to start selling the printed car by 2014. The car makers plan to use more printed car parts in future models of the Urbee, using printed parts for the interior and parts of the chassis.
The Urbee's makers hope that ultimately 3D printing will make it easier to repair the car, as vehicle parts would not have to be shipped but could be printed out at the nearest 3D printing facility. They claim that printing is more environmentally friendly than traditional car manufacturing processes because it only uses the materials needed to produce the car.
The car is driven by an eight-horsepower ethanol-fuelled engine that the car makers say is capable of doing 200 miles per gallon.
3D printed plane
Nervous fliers might baulk at the idea of taking a trip on a printed plane but there's no faulting the aerodynamics of this aircraft.
The electric-powered aircraft has a two-metre wingspan and a top speed of nearly 100mph but is almost silent in cruise mode.
The entire plane was printed out using a nylon laser sintering machine that builds up objects layer by layer and then fuses them together using a laser. The plane was printed in separate parts and then snapped together.
The Southampton University team that made the plane says the 3D printing approach allows an aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. In comparison, manufacturing a plane using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, would normally take months and require expensive tools.
The plane's elliptical wind shape is modelled on that of the famous World War II plane the Spitfire, according to professor Andy Keane of Southampton University, who said the laser sintering process removed the complexity and cost of manufacturing an elliptical wing using traditional methods.
Photo: University of Southampton