Luxury?  We’re All Ears




Looking for the perfect gift for someone who has everything?  How about a 24-karat gold tarantula that walks, a working Ferrari piston, or a bespoke human ear?

These things make splendid gifts for three reasons.  First, they all work.  Second, they’re all cheap.  And third, you can make them yourself in your spare time.  Well, you can if you’re into three-dimensional printing, the latest technological wonder evolved by humans and accessible to anyone with a computer.

Just as a dot-matrix printer deposits drops of colored inks in all the right spots across two dimensions, a 3D printer goes one better.  A nozzle deposits drops of materials such as plastic, aluminum, steel, silver and gold that adhere to each other in three-dimensional space.  If you have a 3D file on hand, you can print anything you want.  Could be a coffee cup, a necklace of interlocking links, a button to replace that old one you lost, or a wind-powered robot that walks the very moment it comes off the printer.

3D printing is big news in the world of industrial, mechanical and biomedical engineering, and it’s about to change your life, especially if you’re hard of hearing.  That’s because one of the materials one can print with is human cells.  That was big news to Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell Medical Centre, who has just perfected the art and science of constructing human ears with a 3D printer.  The new ears are a boon to surgeons who treat thousands of children born with the congenital deformity microtia, and those who have lost an ear due to injury or cancer.  Often, these people have working inner ears yet lack the external ear shape that focuses sound into the ear canal.

Bonassar and his team start by printing a mold with high-density, injectable gel made of living cells in collagen.  Next, cartilage is grown right onto that collagen.  It takes mere hours to custom design the mold, eight hours to print it; half an hour to inject the gel, and the ear can be removed 15 minutes later.  After a few days culture, the ear can be implanted – and it works.


Miraculous?  Maybe.  But stand back, the future is about to get much more interesting.  If you join the swelling ranks of 3D-printing enthusiasts, you can print a human kidney made of stem cells, meat that you can eat (goodbye cattle farms), a sculpture of your lover’s face in chocolate, shoes that actually fit and, just when you need it, a new ear. 


That’s luxury.

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