Group of people chatting on bridge.

Print your heart out

12 May 2014. Published by Emma Kislingbury, Associate

All chocoholics will know that feeling of overwhelming panic when, in desperate need of a chocolate fix, you discover the cupboards are empty.

Well, despair no more: just in time to save you from that post-Easter egg low, a 3D-printer delivering personalised chocolates has hit the shelves in the US.

Aspiring chocolatiers can plug the ChocoByte device into a computer and let their creative streak run free. Once a design is complete users heat chocolate cartridges, place them in the printer, press start and (ten minutes later) voilà – you have your very own bespoke chocolate treat (provided you haven't already devoured all the chocolate cartridges).

As the ChocoByte website states: "Imagine what phrases can be made and what emotions that will evoke ... take a photo of something dear and cherished, and have that shape printed out in chocolate".

Make sure you get your order in quickly though, as only 500 of the machines have been produced. It is likely however that high demand will result in mass production as tech experts predict 3D-printing to be the future of food. Fast food fans will be eagerly awaiting the launch of Foodini – a printer intended to satisfy your pizza, pasta, burger and cake cravings planned to be on the market before the end of the year.

Body builders

Food production however is just one of the many innovative purposes for which 3D-printing is being used. On the home front, the UK has become one of the world's pioneers in using 3D technology in surgery. Recently, Steven Power from Cardiff had pioneering reconstructive surgery to his face following a motorbike accident in 2012, which used 3D-printing at every stage of the procedure.

The surgical team used CT scans to create and print a 3D model of Mr Power's skull. The eight hour procedure involved re-fracturing the cheekbones, remodelling the face and then using a titanium implant, printed in Belgium, to hold the bones in their new shape.  Mr Power has described the results as "totally life-changing" and it is hoped that this latest advance will encourage greater use of 3D-printing in the NHS as costs fall and design tools improve.

This advance came at the same time that a Dutch hospital successfully reported the implant of a 3D-printed skull. The 22-year-old patient suffered from a rare condition which caused abnormal thickening of the bone in her skull and resulted in poor eyesight, severe headaches, an inability to perform facial expressions and pressure on her brain which, according to doctors, would have certainly killed her in time. The operation, the first to involve such an extensive area of the cranium being transplanted, took 23 hours to perform. Three months after the surgery, the patient had her sight back, was symptom-free and back at work.

These are just a couple of examples of how 3D-printing can be used in medicine and how it is helping patients around the world. Doctors are currently working on 3D-printing everything from human skin (replicating skin tone and surface texture) to prosthetics such as eyes and noses.

Print-at-home

Remaining in Holland and on the home front in a different sense, architects in Amsterdam have begun work on the world's first 3D-printed house.

Speaking to The Guardian, Hedwig Heinsman of Dus Architects explains that, "The building industry is one of the most polluting and inefficient industries out there … with 3D-printing, there is zero waste, reduced transportation costs, and everything can be melted down and recycled".

Heinsman believes there could be endless possibilities, "from printing functional solutions locally in slums and disaster areas, to high end hotel rooms". For now it is purely an experiment, albeit one that is creating a lot of interest (Barack Obama was shown the prototypes when he was recently in Amsterdam), but Dus Architects believe it could "revolutionise how we make our cities".

The darker side

3D-printing is certainly not a new concept; it has been around for 20 or 30 years but for a long time remained a prototype process, enabling designers to quickly make test models of products they were developing.  But now that 3D-printing has entered the domain of the consumer, it is worth considering what the potential effects of 3D-printing are and whether they are all to be welcomed?

Advanced techniques and materials mean that 3D-printing is appearing in an increasing number of sectors as a viable means of production.  Industries which have traditionally been dominated by mass production could see a new era of individualised fabrication, where every product can be unique and custom-made. And what effect would this have? In theory, the demand for factories, warehouses and transportation of mass-produced goods could be hugely diminished as instead of buying goods from shops, consumers will be able to download designs and print out items at home.

A fantastic opportunity for entrepreneurs no doubt but a serious concern for many manufacturing corporations, who could see themselves being replaced by a far more local, personalised production process.

In addition to the potential effect on manufacturers and the subsequent economic impact this could have, 3D-printing also raises concerns from a public policy perspective. One particularly controversial and widely reported issue has been the printing of weapons. This time last year the world's first gun made with 3D-printer technology was successfully fired in the US. Mr Wilson, who heads up Defense Distributed, the controversial group which created the gun, had wanted to make the blueprints available online; he said at the time that it was "about liberty"  and spoke of a world where "technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want".

There is no doubt that many positive advances are occurring, but as Lyndsey Gilpen of TechRepublic maintains, 3D printers are "potentially hazardous…and their societal, political, economic and environmental impacts have not yet been studied extensively." There is clearly a "dark side" to 3D-printing and law enforcement agencies and governments around the world need to keep one step ahead of technological developments to avoid the risks that this technology brings with it.

 Emma Kislingbury