Universities Rush to Embrace the 3D Printing Revolution

Compiled by Jake Ravani
April 10, 2013

From dresses to weapons to prosthetic faces, nearly anything can be created with 3D printing, the futuristic process that puts the means of production back in the people’s hands. President Obama championed the technology in his State of the Union address, saying it “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” With MakerBot invading consumer homes, and groups like the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute pushing big business to adopt, 3D printing is estimated to become a $3.7 billion industry by 2015. The technology is already pushing the limits of possibility, including in the world of higher education, where it’s influencing a new generation to innovate.

Many prominent universities have already adopted the tech, giving their students an early opportunity to explore this emerging frontier. Last month, Colorado State University launched its own 3D printing lab, with five printers available for public use. Idea 2 Product Lab, an initiative of the university’s Mechanical Engineering Department, allows visitors to create anything “from replacement backpack clips and anatomically correct bone models, to intricate vases and supersized models of antibodies” from a variety of plastics. The school plans to expand the lab soon, adding more high-end machines and relocating to a larger space on the Fort Collins campus.

A Michigan college has gone a step further. Michigan Tech University (MTU) is planning to 3D print the very equipment that populates their labs. In a report titled “Open-Source 3D-Printable Optics Equipment,” MTU professors and researchers detail how by printing their own scientific hardware components, the school could save up to 99 percent per instrument. The hope is to build an entire free online library of blueprints, giving anyone the ability to fabricate optics equipment on their own. With this, researchers can produce the exact pieces they need for an experiment, or even create custom components that aren’t available commercially.

In an effort to introduce more people to the technology, UC Berkeley has unveiled one of the first 3D printing vending machines. The Dreambox, created by recent alumni Richard Berwick, David Pastewka and Pavan Ravipati, alongside current senior Will Drevno, offers fast, affordable printing to all students, who can even make remote orders on the Dreambox website. Along with boasting same-day services, the machine, open 24/7, is much simpler to use than the current crop of consumer models.

“3D printers in general right now are not automated in any way, shape or form,” says Berwick. “We’ve taken the headache out of the equation, since we have the ability to remove the problem from printing, and that is user interaction.”

Berwick and crew hope to place Dreambox machines at a wide range of university, corporate, and retail locations in the near future. In fact, they’ve already received interest from potential customers around the globe.

With endless possibilities at their fingertips, the question remains: what will students create? Research models and shot glasses are a good place to start, but how about something more advanced, like a replica of their pet’s bone structure? Students at Notre Dame have developed a method of printing full three-dimensional skeletons of living animals using CT scans. So far, the group has only experimented with mice, rats and rabbits, but, as a glimpse into the scientific and medical applications for 3D printing, the results are truly groundbreaking.

At Arizona State University, research associate Justin Ryan is putting the technology to use helping surgeons at the Children’s Heart Center at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Using data from cardiac CT scans, Ryan creates patient-specific 3D printed heart models. Doctors can use these detailed reproductions to better formulate surgery strategies, or walk patients through their procedure before operating.

Perhaps most amazing of all, researchers at Oxford University have built a 3D printer that can produce living tissue. The synthetic material, which consists of tens of thousands of water droplets surrounded by lipid film, exhibits several properties found in real cells, and even shares some of their functionality. Additionally, since these “droplet networks” contain no genetic material, they offer several advantages over stem cells, which can replicate uncontrollably or be rejected by the host body. The custom printer, built by Oxford student Gabriel Villar, has the potential to revolutionize modern medicine, allowing scientists to create the cells and tissues needed to mend or replace entire organs.

As the technology continues to evolve, it seems the future of 3D printing is bound only by the imagination of its proponents. Already, engineers are figuring out how to print buildings and food, inching us closer to a future where anything can be materialized at the touch of a button. Leading this revolution are the young minds and institutions that have not only adopted 3D printing, but begun to push the technology in incredible new directions.


"Obama's speech highlights rise of 3-D printing," CNN, February 13, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/13/tech/innovation/obama-3d-printing

"Helping make imagination reality: 3-D printing comes to Idea 2 Product lab in Fort Collins," coloradoan.com, March 29, 2013, http://www.coloradoan.com/article/20130329/NEWS01/303290029/Making-imagination-reality-CSU-opens-doors-3D-printing-lab?gcheck=1&nclick_check=1

"Open-Source 3D-Printable Optics Equipment," PLOS, 2013, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0059840

"Notre Dame students highlight method for 3D printing skeletons of living animals," Engadget, April 2, 2013, http://www.engadget.com/2013/04/02/3d-print-animal/

"3D Printer Builds Living Tissue - Without Problems of Stem Cells," International Business Times, April 4, 2013, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/453687/20130404/3d-printer-builds-living-tissue-removes-problem.htm

About the Author:

Jake Ravani is a writer and editor based in San Francisco, California. His accolades include 2008 UC Santa Cruz Commencement Speaker and 1999 First Runner-Up, Biggest Star Wars Fan in Marin County. He's a regular contributor to OnlineDegrees.com and OnlineColleges.com.