Harnessing 40-year-old inkjet printer technology to print out living tissues and organs such as livers, hearts, and kidneys on demand may read like science fiction—except it’s very much a reality in medical research labs today. Scientists at Cornell University are using 3D bioprinting to create human ears, vertebral tissue, and heart valves. Researchers at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are experimenting with printing kidneys, bone, and skin to cover wounds, and printers are weaving blood vessels and nerve tissue at the University of Missouri.
Medicine is the newest frontier of 3D printing—also called additive manufacturing—which recently received a $45 million boost from the Obama Administration to train workers and help manufacturers access the innovative technology with the goal of keeping American manufacturing competitive. Indeed, experts anticipate an increase in demand for a variety of skilled workers. As more therapeutic applications of 3D bioprinting emerge, there will be an “explosion of need for cell biologists who can grow and mature cells and harvest them,” predicts Michael Renard, executive vice president of commercial operations for Organovo. This San Diego-based regenerative medicine company is credited with producing the first commercial 3D bioprinter, named one of the best inventions of 2010 by Time magazine.
Also in demand will be a wide variety of engineering talent—hardware, software, and system engineers—with an R&D and manufacturing focus to design bioprinters, maintain them, and increase their efficiency and capacity.
Bioprinting is just one exciting development within the larger field of biomedical engineering technology, says Ahmed Naumaan, PhD, National Dean of the College of Engineering & Information Sciences at DeVry University. And while bioprinting is in its infancy, other kinds of devices and software are becoming commonplace in the medical world—and even at doctor’s offices near you. Naumaan cites technology that allows healthcare professionals to wave a wand-like instrument across patients’ foreheads to instantly take their temperatures and software that helps doctors efficiently review and analyze X-rays and other imagery. Other developments enable doctors to collect patient data while the patients remain at home—cutting back on in-clinic visits, an especial boon to our aging population.
Medicine isn’t the only field benefiting from this technology. Industries such as aerospace, automotive and metals manufacturing already use additive manufacturing, resulting in the printing of not only components but the first complete car and plane in 2011. But whether the “ink” is living cells, plastic, polymers or titanium, the process is the same: A precision 3-D inkjet printer deposits thin layers of material one after another using a digital blueprint until the desired three-dimensional shape has formed.
The good news for folks interested in careers in this burgeoning sector? The tech industry reports that it can’t find enough graduates with the skills required to support these advancements. The compensation picture is strong for skilled workers but “so is the satisfaction of working in a field that so positively impacts lives,” Naumaan contends. “The social value of what you’ll contribute to the world is tremendous.”Tags: 3D printing, additive manufacturing, biomedical engineering, biotechnology, DeVry University, healthcare technology careers, technology careers