A New National Legacy?

Canadian innovators arrive on the 3D printing scene.

3D printing (also known as ‘additive manufacturing’) has hit the news in a big way. Whether it’s a debate about the future of manufacturing, the fear that home-printed guns will compromise international security, or the exploits of a Dutch architect who is building his new home entirely out of printed parts, the industry has been foisted, rather abruptly, into the public eye.

Once seen as something out of science fiction, it may surprise readers to know that the technology to create an object from plastic resin using digital designs has been around since the early 1980s. It has now become popular beyond the worlds of prototype development and hobby modelling—Dalhousie has two for their university library. The printers are used globally to make all kinds of products, and the industry is largely dominated by US developers.

Late to the show are Canadians, who seem intent on carving a tidy little niche in the 3D-printing world. A recent Kickstarter by Rylan Grayston, of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, raised $720,000 in crowd-sourced funding for the development of an entirely new approach to additive manufacturing. The project has yielded a kit for a home printer that can be ordered for around $100.

“The way that they’re doing things is so sort of different from the way normal 3D printers work, that it’s quite amazing to see the shift in thinking,” David Gerhard, a computer science professor at the University of Regina, told CBC News.

But Canadian researchers aren’t just redefining the industry, they’re also developing whole new applications for the technology in medicine, paleontology, and cosmetics.

Rita Kandel and her team of Toronto’s Mt. Sinai hospital are using additive manufacturing to construct artificial joints using a calcium phosphate compound similar to that comprising the human skeleton, together with stimulation of the patient’s stem cells. These new prosthetics do away with the metal and plastic components used in their forebears, and will even degrade to make way for the patient’s own bone tissue as it regrows.

Another medical breakthrough comes from a group of grad students at the University of Toronto, who have managed to develop a tissue similar to human skin. Using a 3D printer to mass-produce the substance, they hope to radically change the treatment of burn victims by enhancing the skin grafting options available to medical professionals.

Donald Henderson of the Alberta Royal Tyrell Museum is using 3D printing to construct models of plesiosaurs—swimming dinosaurs whose mode of locomotion is a subject of debate among paleontologists. By partnering with the University of Calgary to create various models of the dinosaur’s proposed forms and testing these in the water, Henderson hopes to finally settle the argument once and for all.

Amy Chalmers of Natural Skin Solutions in Vancouver is using the technology to develop a skin regeneration tool for clients who are seeking to avoid the aging process. 3D printing allows her to manufacture prototypes without having to send designs to China, enhancing her business substantially.

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