The Engineering Edge review: 3D printing meat and medicine in space

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The first 3D printer to be sent to space during one of its test flights

Made In Space

The Engineering Edge

DesignSpark

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IT IS easy to take the devices and machines holding our modern world together for granted. The Engineering Edge, a podcast now in its second series, is an excellent guide to this fascinating technology.

Each of the six episodes in the latest season explores how technology transforms lives, giving us an edge in everything from space travel to healthcare and even helping to save the planet. It is what lets us do the “extraordinary things” described by host Lucy Rogers. She is currently a visiting professor of engineering at Brunel University in London, as well as an author and presenter – but, luckily for listeners, she most strongly identifies as “an inventor with a sense of fun”.

This becomes obvious when Rogers talks to engineering champions and pioneers, and she often tries to recreate technologies herself. In the first episode, she looks at using 3D printing in space to help astronauts make materials and tools during missions, as well as to provide tailored medical care by bioprinting tissues and eventually organs.

Some of the applications we hear about are suitably otherworldly. Engineering company Made In Space, which sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station, is investigating how to repurpose the ISS’s waste plastic and even dirt from the moon as feedstock for 3D printing. This could let astronauts use the materials to build lunar facilities, such as habitats for rovers. “In the future, makers are going to be up in space,” says Rogers.

Tommaso Ghidini, head of the European Space Agency’s structures, mechanisms and materials division, says the ventures aren’t far-fetched. “Many people think that we are still in a kind of research and development phase – we are not,” he tells Rogers. Several upcoming ESA missions have what he calls the “added manufacturing baseline” of 3D printing, and there are plans to put a 3D bioprinter in space in a few years. NASA has even “printed” cow tissue from stem cells, which could be eaten by astronauts.

At the heart of it all is the need for creativity. “I think creativity, especially for an explorer, is fundamental,” says Ghidini.

In episode two, Rogers turns her attention to haptics, technologies that produce vibrations or other feedback providing the sensation of touch. Haptic motors are responsible for the buzzing of everything from mobile phones to video controllers, as well as more obscure applications that bestow us with a “sixth sense”, such as night-vision goggles.

Haptics can have life-changing effects, as Rogers discovers with naviBelt, designed by researchers in Germany. The belt is embedded with a compass and haptic motors to help people find their way around their surroundings. Each motor vibrates individually depending on the direction in which the user is travelling. This could have huge benefits for people who are blind or partially sighted.

One user (now medical device sales manager for the company that sells naviBelt) became blind 15 years ago. He says it is a “brilliant idea for every blind individual”. It also inspires Rogers to develop her own prototype that, by not quite working, provides light entertainment between interviews.

Considering I could only listen as Rogers hammers and drills in her shed, The Engineering Edge works surprisingly well. This is a testament to her enthusiasm and knack for explaining the science of what she is doing, as well as to the stories of her guests. There is a bonus: Roger asks (and answers) all the questions we are likely to think of as we listen.

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