The wonder of scientific discovery is the way in which knowledge – and curiosity – are passed down from mind to mind, from pure research to application.
When the English chemist Frederick Kipping did his pioneering work on the study of the organic compounds of silicon, or organosilicons, and came up with the term 'silicone' to describe them, he could hardly have known that his discovery would one day be used to enhance the decollete of dancers, seal fish tanks and now, rebuild the human face.
It was Kipping's work which led to synthetic rubber and silicone-based lubricants.
And now that chain of understanding will be used to help people in need of cosmetic facial replacement via 3D printing. Industrial designer Tom Fripp was contacted by researchers at the University of Sheffield and asked if it would be possible to print structures which bear a close resemblance to human soft tissue.
Following a number of years of collaborative work and prototyping, Fripp now says the future has arrived.
Facial parts can now be 3D printed, and in natural, full color, via a process which uses starch powder to form a model which is then vacuum-formed with medical grade silicone. The components are bound together and the resultant prosthetic is both durable and flexible. While the initial work may cost about the same as parts made with traditional processes, each part thereafter can be re-created for just under $250 each.
The end result of the old process, which relies on molding and casting in a one-off method, can cost nearly $5,000 for each piece.
Fripp's process goes like this: a patient's face is 3D scanned and contours are then added to a digital model of the prosthetic part which allows for a perfect fit without the sometimes painful and inaccurate fitting process of old.
He says that while prostheses can eventually wear out from exposure to sun and water, 3D printing simplifies the process and thereby allows for a much greater range of customization per an individual patient's requirements. Fripp says he envisions a time when a patient could get a nose or ear printed within 48 hours. It once took ten weeks.
Fripp says the technology, once it's cleared testing and health service demands, might be ready within a year.
The critical component of the process is the development of his company's machine, the first to print entirely in silicone. Fripp says the process eliminates unsightly white lines which often form around the boundaries of a prostheses as silicone reacts with starch.
Next up? Fripp said he and a group are working on 3D printed eyes which might be made for less than $150. Considering that similar ocular prosthetics hand-made with the current process can often cost more than $6,000. The appeal is obvious.