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Cheap flights and invisibility cloaks: let your imagination run wild in 3D

Lin-Nam Wang visits a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London

By Lin-Nam Wang

Lin-Nam Wang visits a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London

If you know any Harry Potter fans, you can tell them that invisibility cloaks are no longer confined to fantasy. But instead of being woven from the hair of a demiguise, they will be made with materials that can bend visible light because they have been nanoprinted. Cloaks that make objects invisible to microwave radars — which are used by security systems and speed cameras — already exist and this is just the next step, according to an exhibition on 3D printing that opened at the Science Museum this month.

Visitors will find out that 3D printing is not just about a growing mountain of plastic knick-knacks. Advances in this technology mean we can print steel, titanium and gold, two kinds of material at the same time, objects with moveable parts but that do not require assembly, and electrical circuits. Videos showing these printers at work help them to understand the process.

The exhibition highlights a number of ways in which 3D printing could improve things for consumers. For example, an aerospace engineer has used 3D printers to design hinges for aircraft doors and predicts that — thanks to this technology — aeroplanes will be cheaper to produce and lighter so they use less fuel, which could lead to cheaper travel.

This technology is also being used in car engine design and has even made parts for Bloodhound, the 1,000mph supersonic car. And for those who have struggled to find the perfect pair of shoes, 3D printing offers a solution. Consumers will be able to have exactly what they want in terms of fit, colour and design — no more wasting time in shops.

Changing lives

However, the exhibition is not only about what 3D printing could offer, but how it has already changed lives — over 5.5 million people have been treated using printed medical parts. Stories include printers being used in facial reconstruction after road traffic accidents (exact-fit pieces can be produced quickly, offering huge advantages in urgent trauma cases and where bones might otherwise be deemed beyond repair) and to produce a bioscaffold for a collapsed trachea (the tube held the airway open, only dissolving once the child’s trachea had grown strong enough to function alone).

Can you picture 3D printers as standard equipment in operating theatres or in first aid kits? This exhibition will help you to. Exciting work is being done with “inks” that contain cells and, according to John Jackson, associate professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre, North Carolina, skin could be printed to cover burns. Burns could be scanned to see how deep they are and layers of the right cells printed, reducing healing times from eight to three weeks and decreasing the risk of infection.

Dr Jackson’s institute is working with the US Department of Defence with the aim of bringing this technology to soldiers in the next five years. Burns account for about 10 per cent of military casualties and skin printers will be small enough to be used in the field, he explains.

Imagine, also, if organs could be printed using patients’ own cells. There would be no need to wait for a donor and no risk of rejection.

Printed polypills

Naturally there is a pharmacy aspect to all this. Earlier this year a Journal article described projects at University College London that use inkjet printers to achieve personalised dosing and grow drug crystals, and developments at GlaxoSmithKline to print active ingredients onto tablets (2013;291:25).

Printed tablet (University of Nottingham)This exhibition features work at The University of Nottingham to print tablets that combine a number of drugs. Clive Roberts, head of the school of pharmacy, told The Journal: “So far we have printed out two [drugs] in separate layers but this could be more if desired.” Some of these tablets are on display at the museum. They perhaps do not quite look like the tablets you would give to a patient (see image), but Professor Roberts said that their appearance will improve and, importantly, because they will be printed for immediate use, stability issues common in some formulations will be removed.

He explained, also, that 3D printers could be used to achieve internal structures and drug distributions that would be impossible using standard compression techniques. Professor Roberts said that although, to date, the focus has been on matching the drug release profiles of commercial formulations as well as other standard tests (eg, friability, weight uniformity etc) 3D printing has much more potential than that. In future, prescribers could formulate a tablet of a particular combination of drugs and print it off for a patient. Ingredients could still be coated to give precise control over release. You could go from 20 tablets a day to one, using a simple printer, so 3D printing could be a way of achieving personalised treatment.

Jayne Lawrence, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist, also contributes to the section on health. She says that although printed tablets will have to be thoroughly tested it is likely that pharmacists would print them. So there is a vision of dispensary shelves going back to stocking raw materials but to be loaded into a printer. However, it will be years before patients use complex printed tablets but the technology could be used more quickly for vitamins and supplements, where there is less regulation, Professor Roberts says.

3D printing technologies are opening up a world of possibilities. This well curated little exhibition sparked my imagination and I think it will do the same for you. The only thing missing was the opportunity — which other events showcasing 3D printing have offered — for visitors to print their own trinket (in one of the environmentally friendly bioplastics that have now been developed, of course).


“3D: printing the future” runs until 1 July 2014 in the Antenna gallery of the Science Museum in London. Admission is free.

There will be hands-on workshops and activities from 23 to 27 April 2014. 


Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11129132

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Supplementary images

  • Science museum image (University of Nottingham)

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