Harvard Hero Moment #1: 3D Printing

Fiona Bates

14 Aug 2019

In 1979 McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal with a spinning top and stencil. Sony Walkman launched as the future of music listening. And an APF Imagination machine – complete with full-sized typewriter keyboard and tape drive – was the cutting-edge of home computing. The pace of change over 40 years, and the impact of tech in play, entertainment, communication and work, is staggering. That’s why at Harvard, as we celebrate our 40th birthday this year, we’re looking back at our top tech moments – the 40 people, inventions or moments in time that have shaped the world we live in today. To kick us off, you’re expecting the invention of the Internet, the launch of the iPhone or the creation of Tinder, right? In fact, no. I’m keen to talk about Dr Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan – and the legacy he’s created. In 1980, Dr Kodama devised a print cycle where each new layer of resin added to a previous one and corresponded to a cross-sectional slice in a 3D model. It was how the first solid, 3D printed object came to be. Like many inventions, this was a humble beginning – but it was a precursor to a technology about to rapidly evolve, disrupt and shape our future for the better. I’ve chosen this tech moment not because of its history, but because of its future. Because when we talk about the positive, transformational impact technology can have, 3D printing is quietly disrupting almost every major industry and solving some of our biggest challenges in society. In fact, it’s quite literally out of this world. NASA already maintains a 3D printer on the International Space Station, so astronauts can build custom tools without having to fly them into space. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. In healthcare, the potential of 3D printing is already being realised from bioprinting and surgery preparation to prosthetics. The dream is that, one day, we’ll be able to 3D print bones and organs for patients who need them, rather than waiting for donors. Already, patients with rare bone cancers – when vertebra need to be removed – have had replacements 3D printed using titanium powder, which is lightweight, sturdy and porous, helping bones to fuse with it over time. In disaster relief, one of the most powerful uses of next generation printing came after the awful 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Here, Field Ready – a tech-oriented NGO – used 3D printing to make water pipe fittings and washers on the fly: an incredible example of the technology’s potential to help communities in disaster areas rebuild infrastructure far faster. Meanwhile, in the States, 3D printing has been touted as a possible solution for low-income housing. Last year a 3D printed house – a single storey, 650 square foot home – was constructed in under 24 hours and for less than $4,000. And finally, from land living to seabed ecosystems, 3D printing can have a big impact combating climate change. The technology is already being used to reinvigorate coral growth and sustain aquatic species that live in the reefs. By producing settlement substrates that support coral larvae and help effective reef restoration, 3D printing is rebuilding one of the most fragile, endangered ecosystems on the planet. Without doubt, scientists are just scratching the surface of what 3D printing can achieve – including the ways in which it can transform our lives and our planet. What’s for certain is that Dr Kodama’s work has been a catalyst for totally reimagining how we manufacture, create and solve issues today. And as the technology improves, so will its impact. Many of those who will advance 3D printing – and use it to invent, build and positively transform beyond our current imagination – are kids, now sitting in our classrooms. Here, 3D printing is already playing a crucial role in promoting and engaging young students in STEM subjects – meaning the next Dr Kodama will not be far away.