Monthly Archives: June 2014

A Change of Pace – 3D Body Parts

Move over Captain Kirk!  Or take a bow, Gene Roddenberry!  Your Replicators are developing almost as fast as they are printing out “stuff.”


You knew this was coming:  3d printed body parts.  Main blood vessels would seem to be made to order for 3D printers.  They don’t have permeable walls – all they are is tubes to move the blood from one part of the body to another.  As long as the material is not rejected by the body and does not break down, it would seem that aortas would be a perfect application of 3D printing.  And if they can make it out of our own cells, the rejection problem should be completely eliminated – and breakdown should pretty much gone, as well: The 3D printed one should last as long as the original, perhaps the rest of our lives.

Will they be able to make new livers and kidneys and pancreases, complex organic factories?  Certainly not at this stage, but given time, it seems possible, if not altogether doable.


About 15 years ago or so, I first heard of 3D printers, and the first thought in my mind was Star Trek transporters.  Don’t laugh!  We are well on our way!

To transport, the Star Trek idea was to disassemble an object or organism by full body scanning and disassembling the body molecule by molecule, and then transmitting the pattern to another location and re-assembling it.  It was similar to replicating, but had the extra steps at the transmitting end of identifying every molecule in the body and, one-by-one, removing them from the object or organism.  From that point on, the two are pretty identical. (Except for how to deal with the consciousness/personality/memories.)

But ten years ago, where was the scanner?

Aha! THAT, dear reader, had been invented LONG before – around 1980-ish – with NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance.  NMR is now usually called MRIs. MRIs display IN 3D and only display (usually).

Enter CNCs for a moment, just for illustrative purposes:

Computer Numerically Controlled machining centers are the current way that metal parts are made these days. A CNC takes a computer generated “model” of a part – that is EXACTLY the same size and shape as the finished part needs to be.  That model LOOKS like the real 3-dimensional part – with holes and notches and chamfers and shoulders and hubs and bosses and all sorts of shapes.  There was a transition period for CNC machines, when a person would have to take a 2-dimenional drawing and, using proper commands, create the 3D model for the machinist.  But at this point in tech history the 2D drawing is done away with.  The designer now creates the object’s shape in 3D exactly as he wants it.  That is the “model” – the cyber-equivalent to the real thing.  There is no extra step anymore – software now directly takes that cyber model and from it generates all the steps needed by the machining center (the CNC).  And the parts come out super accurate.

THAT tech has been with us now for a long time.  CNC tech, like all machining, is basically a SUBTRACTIVE process – you start with a chunk of metal slightly too big, and then you start removing metal until the shape is 100% correct. 100% of the unneeded material is taken away, leaving only what you want, in the shape you want.  What is NEW is that the 3D printer is not subtractive but is instead ADDITIVE.  And THAT is pretty cool.  You start with nothing, and then keep adding the material layer by layer until you’ve got the finished part.

And that is EXACTLY what a replicator or a transporter needs to do at the “building” end – keep putting more material in until the thing is 100% built – 100% of the needed material has been ADDED.

It is, I found, very apropos to call it “printing,” by the way.  Watching a 3D printer is like watching now-obsolete large format ink printers for technical drawings.  But it is also like watching the really old teletype type printers from the 1950s.  And it right now is just about that slow, at least for some of the current printers.  It is also a bit like watching fax machines print out.  But as teletypes and faxes got faster and faster, and as new innards are developed, the 3D printers of 10 years from now will probably be 10 times faster.  Perhaps 100 or 1,000 times faster.


The Star Trek shows usually used the term “Pattern Buffer.”  Basically, and perhaps literally, that is the same thing as saying a “3D computer model.”  Once the model is created, it is stored in a computer file, and many copies of the object can be made from that one cyber model.  Making copies does not degrade the file in any way – it is just a template.  Template, model, pattern buffer – same thing.

So now, we have had the two main rudimentary elements of Star Trek transporters around for over 10 years.  The early “builder” elements, however were only capable of dealing with one material at a time – the early 3D printers. (It was called stereolithography then.)   I could see that at the time, and that that would change.  I figured that in time people would ask if a second and third material could be added.  After all, how many different elements are in a human body?  How many different molecule types?  I guessed that someone was already thinking about those other materials and how to incorporate them into the 3D printers.

It turns out that I was right to expect that.  I see these articles now, and I smile. We are on our way, Captain Kirk!

As far as body parts go, we may be able to – SHOULD be able to – repair many or most or maybe someday ALL of our organs this way. We may be able to pre-print them and keep them in cry-stasis, waiting for the day when we need them.  Just thinking about what all this might do for human longevity makes my head spin.  We may be close to 200-year-old people – perhaps 1,000 year old people.

We may not be able to transport ourselves, though.  Doing that will mean transferring the consciousness to the new body location.  Can we do that? That will have to be proven before I will believe it.  But it MIGHT HAPPEN!  I honestly do not know. But at the same time, just replacing body PARTS is something FAR beyond what Mary Shelley could have envisioned in “Frankenstein.”  Is it better to re-animate dead tissue or to keep the tissue alive in the first place?

What do you think?