Engineers from Melbourne TTP have invented a multi-material print head nozzle capable of building with everything from cells to metals. Called the "Vista 3D", the print head is currently outfitted for 2D printers but TTP engineers plan to move it into the 3D printing market within two years. When it does hit, it will give manufacturers and researchers the ability to print off complex products made of several materials; perhaps even printing stem cells alongside blood vessel networks for things like transplantable organs.
Sam Hyde, TTP's managing director, called the medical implications for the Vista 3D "very exciting." He also said that we could be seeing 3D printed organs within the next five to ten years, especially since the Vista 3D will allow researchers to lay down more than one material at a time – something that has been a bit of a roadblock for scientists who are trying to create things like 3D printed kidneys. "You need to get the right kind of cells to the printer and keep them in the right condition. The key thing is then to delicately dispense these cells into the right position without damaging them, and our technology is very good at that."
Because of its ability to print with multiple materials the Vista 3D could also be used for a whole host of non-medical applications. "3D printing has already been hailed as the future of manufacturing and many household-name companies are already making use of the technology...albeit limited to single material components," TTP's Dr. David Smith said. "Our latest breakthrough will speed this process up and change the face of manufacturing over the next 10 years. The manufacturing process has remained the same for centuries with one company making products in a factory, then shipping them out when orders are made. Multi-material 3D printing will change this. No longer will organizations need to bulk buy or wait for items to be restocked, companies can simply print off the products they need, when they need them."
Eventually, Hyde hopes distribution will become completely on-demand. "It will become possible to go to your local garage and have a new exhaust printed out there and then for you, or to go to the hospital and get a custom implant created for you at the touch of a button. From a medical perspective, the opportunities are endless, from printing out a diagnostic test to ultimately printing off an organ that can be used in the human body."
Even without multi-material print heads researchers are already hard at work using 3D printing to create the next wave of medical advancements. In the last few years we've seen everything from skull and jaw implants to 3D printed robotic hands.