Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

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The MakerBot Replicator 2 prints a 3-D sculpture of a human head at the CeBIT computer fair in Germany.

Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

3-D Printers Are Saving Lives and Serving Pizzas

The emerging technology prints an implant and could keep astronauts well fed.

The marvels of 3-D printing are continuing to make headlines this month.

Biomedical engineers at the University of Michigan have revealed how they used 3-D printing technology to fashion a tiny, custom-made implant that helped save the life of a newborn baby boy.

And the Texas-based engineering firm Systems and Materials Research Corporation has just received a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a printer that can fabricate pizzas for astronauts to eat in spacenot unlike the food "replicator" in Star Trek.

Saving Kaiba

Six-week-old Kaiba Gionfriddo was born with a condition that caused the airways in one of his lungs to collapse regularly; the infant had to be resuscitated on a daily basis. Working with his doctors, researchers used a CT scan of his airways to design a sort of tracheal "splint" that would be able to support the lining of his bronchial tube for two or three years until his body grows stronger and he no longer requires the artificial assistance.

Using a sophisticated 3-D printer, and the CT scan as their blueprint, the team printed up a flexible tube out of biopolymer that was perfectly sized to Kaiba's tiny air passages. They implanted it in February 2012. Sixteen months later Kaiba and his parents are breathing easy, with no more emergency resuscitations or brushes with death.

Heavenly Pizza

Down in Texas plans are afoot to make pizzas for NASA that will be literally out of this world. The idea is to be able to create nutritious meals on long interplanetary missions.

"The current food system is not adequate in nutrition or acceptability through the five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars," said NASA spokesperson Dave Steitz. At present, astronauts dine on pre-packaged meals not unlike the meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) issued to the military. MREs require a lot of processing and over time lose their nutritional value.

Enter the 3-D food printer. By following digital recipes and using easily stored bulk ingredients—powdered carbohydrates, powdered proteins, and oils—deep-space travelers will be able to print out hot, fresh onboard meals. In theory anyway, these foods will not only be wholesome and tasty, but also tailored to meet the precise nutritional needs and personal tastes of each extraterrestrial diner.

Pizza won't be the only item on the printed menu. The humble pizza is being used as a starting point because its layered structure makes it an ideal candidate for 3-D food-printing technology, which "prints" objects by depositing one microscopically thin layer at a time—and in the case of pizzas, baking them as they go.

Printing Dinner

Creating the meals will require a blend of printing technologies: 3-D printing to build up the bulk of the meal, and inkjet printing to add vitamins, flavors, and aromas. The end results might not win any Michelin stars, but they should be satisfying enough to keep capsule-bound astronauts well-fed on a multiyear mission to Mars.

Printing meals from generic bulk-stored ingredients such as powdered carbohydrates and proteins has implications far beyond the confines of a Mars-bound space capsule, according to the company behind the proposal, and could be used to help solve potential food crises as the planet's population continues to grow. The 3-D printing process reduces waste to nearly zero, and underutilized foods such as insects and algae can be dried and powdered and used to supply some of the ingredients.

These latest innovations and breakthroughs brighten the spotlight that has been thrown on the fast-evolving 3-D printing industry lately, starting with the headline-grabbing announcement that a University of Texas law student had printed a functioning .38-caliber handgun out of $60 worth of plastic.