Notable Tech Trends: The Maker Movement and 3D Printing

Recently, 3D printing technology and the Maker Movement have gained much traction and transformed themselves from a novelty into a mainstream phenomenon. “Makerspace” refers to a community-operated workspace where people with common interests – often in computers, machining, technology, science, or digital or electronic art – meet, socialize, and collaborate. A makerspace encompasses a continuum of activity that includes “co-working,” “hackerspace,” and “fab lab.” Hackerspace emphasizes computer programming activities while “fab lab” tends to offer more machinery equipment. All of them share the same focus on making rather than consuming. In order to support individuals in pursuing such making activities, makerspaces offer tools and equipment that are not readily available at home such as a 3D printer and laser cutter, provide a collaborative space where people can learn by hands-on activities, and organize events and workshops.

The goal of a makerspace is to foster and facilitate people’s creativity and innovation by providing a playful and informal learning environment for hands-on experimentation and learning-by-doing experience. While makerspaces provide many other tools and resource, the most prominently featured technology at makerspaces is 3D printing. Invented in the 1980s, 3D printing technology is not new, but the recent advent of affordable 3D printers on the market has made 3D printing more accessible to the public than ever before. Most 3D printers use ABS or PLA plastic as material and melt it at a high temperature to shape it into a three-dimensional object. It is also possible to use ceramic, metal, chocolate, sugar, and even concrete or organic materials for 3D printing. Scientists are already bio-printing human tissues and attempting to 3D print a human organ itself.

We need to pay attention to the Maker Movement and 3D printing because they have a significant impact on health sciences research and beyond. By bringing a new and affordable means of production to individuals, the maker movement and 3D printing catalyze innovation and promote entrepreneurship.

  • A man in Massachusetts created a prosthetic hand for his son, who was born without fingers, using a 3D printer at only a fraction of the cost for a commercial prosthetic hand.
  • A Baltimore-based startup company, Verve, launched a Kickstarter campaign for their 3D printed device for posture and pain relief (called ARC) and raised over $7,000 in less than 24 hours. The company includes UMB School of Medicine faculty member Dr. Gene Shirokobrod.
  • A surgeon in Maryland performed a total knee replacement surgery using 3D printing technology to cast an implant and manufacture the jigs – plastic cutting guides – that direct incisions.
  • Pharmacists are exploring a way to use 3D printing to produce drugs that are more affordable and customizable to the needs of individual patients.
  • The National Institutes of Health recently launched the 3D Print Exchange so researchers can share 3D print files, acknowledging the important role of 3D modeling and printing technology in biomedical and scientific research.
  • The White House held its very first White House Maker Faire, stating that the rise of the maker movement represents a huge opportunity for the nation and that it would create the foundation for new products and processes, which can help to revitalize American manufacturing in the same way that the Internet and cloud computing had lowered the barriers to entry for digital startups.

These examples point to a not-so-distant future, in which familiarity with the maker movement and 3D printing technology will be a requisite for students, researchers, and entrepreneurs who wish to stay competitive and successful in health sciences. The HS/HSL is looking into the possibility of creating a makerspace on site to support the research, teaching, and study activities of the UMB faculty and students and is currently investigating potential funding sources. You can expect to hear more from us about this initiative in the near future.

Bohyun Kim, Associate Director, Library Applications and Knowledge Systems
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