'Fab lab' digital dreams

Manufacturing in the backyard shed, building new human organs or fixing damaged ones inside the body, even changing the foundations of life to make cells that solve human problems.

These are the sort of things being dreamt of by fans of digital fabrication who have been taking part in a "fab lab" event hosted by Massey University in Wellington during the past week.

Massey's School of Design has set up the first digital fabrication facility affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Australasia. Such labs include laser cutters, milling machines and 3D printers which create three-dimensional objects from computer files by adding layers of material.

Mark P Mills, who writes Forbes' Energy Intelligence column, is picking 3D printing as a key technology change that could transform this century. The technology involves "printing" parts and devices using computational power, lasers and powdered metals and plastics.

Already patient-specific parts such as hip joints are being made, and some supporters see the potential for much manufacturing to move into neighbourhoods.

Participants at a public symposium in Wellington today as part of the fab lab event heard, among other things,  about silver ink that can be used for printing high-performance electronics, about the work under way to "bioprint" human organs, and about efforts to design cells from scratch to solve human problems.

Speaking by video link, Dr John Glass, from the synthetic biology programme at the J Craig Venter Institute in the US, said researchers aspired to develop the capacity to change the hardware - cells - of living systems.

Cells had already been designed that were used as factories, for instance for the production of an anti-malarial drug, but it became apparent that while short biological circuits could be made quite predictably, as the circuits involved more genes and enzymes they become less and less reliable for producing the desired materials.

Biology was possibly the most complex of all sciences, and even the simplest of all known cells had thousands of moving parts, Glass said.

The goal now was to be able to build a true minimal cell, to be able to learn the first principles of life. With that understanding more and more complicated cells could be built.

After gaining a better understanding of life to increase the predictability of biological circuits, the work could be used in areas such as energy, bioremediation, materials science, vaccine discovery, and stem cell therapy.

But Glass also acknowledged that, "as things get easier to make that can solve human problems, it gets easier to make things that can create human problems".

But for now, too little was known about how life worked to  be able to make radical changes from what was present in nature, Glass said.

Robin Levin, speaking on behalf of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, said that if bioprinting worked it would have enormous value for people who needed transplants, trauma sufferers, and cancer patients.

Body parts that had already been grown and transplanted included urinary bladders, trachea and blood vessels, while parts coming included kidneys, livers and bones. There was also the hope of being able to repair organs in the body.

Professor Jennifer Lewis, from the University of Illinois, talked about the silver ink that had been developed for printing high performance electronics on low cost materials such as flexible plastic.

Until recently most commercial 3D printers had been used for rapid prototyping. If the technology was to be taken to the next level more robust printing materials were needed, as was much higher throughput, she said.

Among other things, her group had worked on developing a broad palette of functional inks. It had also worked on a printer with a large number of nozzles which could work faster and cover a larger area than a single nozzle printer.