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It’s a Fab, Fab World!

At Singularity University, on the NASA Ames research campus in California, we have an innovation lab that is sponsored by Autodesk, a design and visualization software company.

Makerbot (cc) Bre Petis

People use the lab’s computers and software to design new objects very precisely, and to render them with photo-realistic quality.  The resulting digital files can then be sent to a 3D printer.  We have several of these, including a professional Stratasys unit and some DIY-cool MakerBots.  In a few hours, they have something they can hold in their hands.

With these tools, any idea can be made into reality in just a few hours.

While it’s nice to have these tools at our fingertips, this technology, called digital fabrication, is available to almost anyone through companies like Shapeways and Ponoko, which offer access to these printers and other tools online.  These services are leading a revolution in personal-scale manufacturing by allowing designers, materials suppliers, printer manufacturers and customers to work together and make a growing array of products.

Most machines can print only one type of material at a time, usually plastic or metal.  They’re complicated and expensive devices, ranging in size from a microwave to a fridge, and they’re packed with electronics and wiring.

Bespoke Innovations Prosthetic

Bespoke Innovations Prosthetic

Yet they are unbelievably cool machines, and addictive.  They’re radically changing the way things are being design, developed, and manufactured.  Prototypes can be made and tested rapidly.  Customization is easy, too, because each unit starts as a digital file and is made on demand.For example, Scott Summit, of Bespoke Innovations in San Francisco, is using these tools to reimagine the world of prosthetics.

He uses digital fabrication to make unique replacements that are not only perfect copies of the remaining limb, but incorporate  exquisite personal artistic expressions as well.

“Fab” technology is still pretty new, but it is improving exponentially, as is often the case for digital technologies.  Everything related to the field is growing – from the diversity of the outputs, to the industries starting to use them, to the sophistication of the printers.  One company, Organovo, has already replaced plastic with living cells, and is using the machines to print blood vessels, and perhaps soon, complete organs, like lungs or kidneys.

Extrapolating this curve, it is clear that digital manufacturing will bring changes in manufacturing and distribution of many goods.  And while it’s not yet possible to fab something as common as a cell phone with a single device, chances are good we will eventually get there.

Looking further out, some foresee the day we have machines so sophisticated that they are able to make more fully functional fab machines, creating limitless manufacturing ability, leading to an age of abundance.  All that would be needed is raw materials (possibly any matter, since all things are made of the same atomic stuff), some energy, and the digital instructions to make the good.  Ask them when these universal fab machines will be reality, though, and the estimates range widely, typically between twenty and forty years.

I’m a biologist, though, and I have a slightly different perspective on fab technology.  What I perceive is that universal fabricators already exist, and indeed have existed for some time.  They’re not just under our noses, they make our noses.  They’re called cells.

Living cells make a vast array of compounds, and can also make all the structural components required to make more cells.  They do this biochemistry with common compounds found in nature, like carbon and nitrogen, and with a wide range of energy sources, the most basic being sunlight.  The digital instructions that control cells are all written in genetic code, usually but not always DNA.

Nature has been making and tinkering with bio-fabs for over 4 billion years.  Some are simple, stand-alone machines, like bacteria.  Others are fantastically complicated networks consisting of trillions of interconnected fabricators.  Our planet is literally teeming with them, in all shapes and sizes.  They are so prolific that they compete with each other for material resources and energy, even going so far as to feed on each other or their remains.  Their genetic programs produce many different shapes and sizes and behaviors.  Look deeper, at the kernel of their genetic programs, though, and we find just three core functions:

  1. Find energy and raw materials
  2. Avoid predation and death
  3. Reproduce

We humans are, not surprisingly, a special case.  We are the first of nature’s bio-fabs that are able to make non-biological tools and to write our own design programs.  This is the essence of technology.  It’s hard work but it’s made us the most effective builders on the planet.  With our technology, we have dominion over every other organism, and even other people if they aren’t as adept at technology as we are.

In May of 2010, we reached a significant milestone, with Craig Venter and his research team using technology to make the first human-programmed cell, a bacterium.  Biology begets technology which begets biology.  We’ve come full circle.

What this practically means is that limitless manufacturing ability is already at hand.  And it can be harnessed to address human needs simply by becoming more adept at writing and executing DNA code and/or organizing cells into structures that are useful.  Systems and synthetic biology empowers us in the first task, and a detailed knowledge of developmental pathways, or how to 3D print cells, the second.  Combined, these allow us take control over life’s core functions and add a fourth attribute: usefulness to humanity.

The manufacturing processes we use today are undeniably useful.  We’ve literally transformed our societies and our planet with them.  The downsides are that they require a substantial amount of human effort to build and maintain, they consume large amounts of energy, and they produce waste products that can be quite toxic to living creatures, including us, and the environments that they live in.  In the long-term, they’re not sustainable.

In the city, where living things are marginalized, it’s easy to forget about life.  But hike into the countryside, dive in the ocean, or browse the growing number of DNA and biological databases, and one is quickly reminded that this a living world, and that life is not just abundant, but also amazingly robust and diverse.  If we can become adept at making synthetic genomes and synthetic organisms, there’s a good chance we can increasingly use them to manufacture the things we need for our modern, technological lifestyles, and to integrate living things back into the urban environment.

Bio-fabrication offers tantalizing improvements, a path to making products and structures and other useful things using natural compounds and the cheap and plentiful energy of sunlight or sugar.  Waste products would be biocompatible, and obsolete or broken devices easily recycled through composting or digestion.  And important from an economic and cultural perspective, direct human effort would be minimal because the cellular bio-fabs would do most of the work.  Effectively, our role would be to design and build useful cellular systems, and to be good caretakers of the living things we create, not so different from farmers or ranchers.

When I look to the future, I see things like bio-designed shoes made of cells and other natural compounds, as durable and comfortable as one you might be wearing, only not manufactured in a faraway factory, but grown in all shapes and sizes in a nearby field.  I see homes that are 3D printed from cellular materials that, after deposition, knit together to form bone or bamboo-like composites.  Or better yet, grown from special seeds.  And as our 3D printers become capable of working with living and non-living materials at the same time, things like submarines that are part dolphin, and airplanes that are part bird.  Such hybrid manufacturing would combine the best man-made technology with the elegance of what nature has created seamlessly.

There’s a lot that has to happen before we can realize even these simple examples.  For one thing, we have to train a new generation of makers that see biology as part of the engineering repertoire.  This is already happening with the international Genetically Engineered Machines program created by MIT, and the mushrooming DIYbio and citizen science movement.

For another, we need better tools, including design software that facilitates the making of living things, complete with metabolic and developmental libraries, plus any safety or regulatory parameters.  Autodesk is already exploring how their software could enable this.

But the key thing may be a global understanding that biology is a technology, and perhaps the most important technology at hand for sustaining our species and our planet, and shed our fears of using it more broadly to serve our needs.

After all, using technology is what we humans do best.

Andrew Hessel is the Co-Chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at Singularity University as well as the founder of an innovative research cooperative called PinkArmy.

You can find this article and many more in Issue 01 of Citizen Science Quarterly