Like all Marshall apprentices, Emily has had the opportunity to rotate around different departments in the business to gain experience and exposure to different job roles before deciding on a specialism. We caught up with her to find out about her placement in arguably one of the most exciting departments in the business – Futureworx. The Futureworx team looks at potential products and emerging technologies that the business might want to explore to keep up with rapid innovation and advancements in engineering. One of Emily’s objectives was to pick a topic that interested her, do as much research as possible and present her findings to the team. Emily chose to explore the fascinating subject of 3D printing in space.
“It was a really fascinating subject to research as I started to find out more about human organ manufacture, developing new technology for mobile connections and even growing food in space”
3D printing is not new
Everything that Emily researched and spoke about is currently happening, albeit in its early stages, but the technology exists and is very much in the realm of science fact rather than science fiction. The 3D printing process is also known as “additive manufacturing” and this refers to the ability to create 3D objects using a digital model. 3D printing objects is not new, in fact, it has been around since the 1980s, but the technology has come a long way in the past few years – it is now more sustainable than traditional manufacturing and more cost effective, so it’s a good time to explore its applications in different environments such as zero or low gravity.
3D printing in space
Like any other printer, the 3D printer uses an ink source, which in this case could be resin, plastic, metal, polymer or bio ink. Using a specialised 3D printer, it produces an object based on a digital model designed in one of countless 3D modelling software packages, such as CAD. This has been happening on earth for many years, but scientists are now starting to experiment with designing, testing and producing products in space such as skin care, food, biotech, large space structures, organic tissue, medication and orbital microfabrication (crystals). Some of these objects are being developed to support deep space travel or interplanetary colonisation, while others are produced in space because the ink or structures are so delicate that they require zero gravity to prevent them from breaking while being printed.
3D printing human organs in space
Emily covered a few different applications in her presentation but the subject that she is most interested in and excited about is growing human organs. To do this, scientists use a substance called bio ink, which is composed of stem cells enveloped in a biopolymer gel (collogen, agarose, alginate and hyaluronic acid), which acts as a 3D molecular scaffold for the cells to grow on. They use stem cells as these can grow into any cell you need it to become, such as heart cells, kidneys, lungs etc. This means that in future, scientists will be able to use your stem cells to grow a genetically identical organ if you need a new one, eliminating the risk of rejection and thus the need for expensive anti-rejection medications.
How far along are we?
This technology is in its infancy and there are still many challenges to overcome. Firstly, the organs must be printed in zero gravity as the cells are so delicate that the force of gravity would cause damage to the structure. The experiments to manufacture organs are conducted on a £5m bio fabrication facility on the International Space Station and, so far, they have produced a human heart (complete with the correct cells and blood vessels), however it is the size of a rabbit’s heart and scientists have not yet worked out how to teach it to pump. The good news is that they are confident they can achieve this within the next 10 years. However, due to the need to grow these organs in zero gravity, mass production is going to be an expensive challenge to overcome.
The ethical issue
Scientists are confident that they will be able to grow working organs in space in the next few decades. However, as mass production of 3D printed organs is unlikely to be in our lifetime, who will decide which patients will receive the organs? Will designer organs become exclusive to the wealthiest bidder, the sickest children or the brightest minds with the most potential to solve the world biggest problems? Will it become an organ manufacturing lottery system with the recipients decided by the luck of the draw and will there be an age limit for those who can enter? Would a patient’s lifestyle choices be considered or will genetic predispositions to diseases disqualify them, even if it isn’t 100% certain that they would fall ill? This ethical debate will likely mean that it will be far beyond our lifetime before these manufactured organs become widely available and used to treat people.
What 3D printed technology might we see used commercially in our lifetimes?
3D printing at scale in zero or low gravity is going to be very challenging if we confine our operations to space stations and they would need to be extremely large to make this viable. Being able to set up laboratories on the moon could be a potential solution. Scientists are experimenting with 3D printing structures using lunar dust as this might be the best way to produce and build habitable moon bases. 3D printed food, especially meat, will likely become a sustainable and humane alternative to farming livestock, with some restaurants in Singapore already selling lab-grown chicken nuggets. This 3D printed food would also be invaluable for people living and working in space.
At the end of the presentation, Emily said:
“I really enjoyed my time with the team at Futureworx and the opportunity to explore technological advancements that Marshall might be involved with in the coming years. It also made me consider the ethics behind some of this technology and that is not something I had thought about before in much detail.”
Emily’s enthusiastic presentation and detailed research reflects how much she enjoyed the project and it is encouraging to know that she is one of the bright young minds who might be involved in leading projects like the bio-ink 3D manufacturing revolution. Rapid technological advances mean that the future is not that far away, and so it is a very exciting time for young people to consider pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).