Hollywood’s depiction of 3D printing not nearly as cool as real life

Technology |  3 min. read

Hollywood’s enduring some criticism over its depiction of emerging 3-D technologies – particularly after the Ocean’s 8 film.

The movie has faced some backlash over a pivotal plot point where a 3-D printer was used to create a replica of a necklace worth $150 million. That raised the question: Can you really recreate a $150 million piece of jewelry?

Not one that could fool trained eyes – at least not yet, according to publications like Refinery29.com and 3Dprintingindustry.com.

As they say, real life is often much better than the movies.

Perhaps the hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy ought to consider incorporating real-life 3-D printing technology into its scenes. Because what is now possible if you require, say, heart surgery, ought to be the dramatic climax for any TV show or movie.

Did you know, for example, that in today’s modern world your doctor could rehearse – say the day before you go into the operating room — using a model of your heart?  Not just a generic version from the supply room shelf, the actual dimensions of your heart?

Thanks to high-tech polymers and 3-D printing, that’s possible (Petrochemicals are used to make the polymers, or plastics.  The 3D printer turns those plastics into replica hearts, or other parts of our bodies.)

Here’s how it would work: “Before inserting and expanding a pen-sized stent into someone’s aorta, the hose-like artery that carries our blood away from the heart, Doctor Jason Chuen, a vascular (blood vessels) surgeon at Australia’s University of Melbourne, likes to practice on the patient first. …

“He has a 3D printer in his office and brightly colored plastic aortas line his window sill [though it’s true, it looks a bit like a squid]

“… They are all modeled from real patients and printed out from CT scans, ultrasounds, and x-rays.

“’By using the model I can more easily assess that the stent is the right size and bends in exactly the right way when I deploy it,’ says Chuen.”

In Hollywood terms, it’s like a personalized dress rehearsal for surgery, but the patient only has to show up for the actual operation.

Doctor Chuen’s routine is not routine today, but this has the look of the standard operating procedure of the future, as it were.

And maybe one day, it will not only make for better surgeries – but a great souvenir too, when you get to take home your model aorta after surgery.

And plastics (polymers) and printers are making their way into the operating room as well.

For instance, how about a high-tech plastic skull?   Not a toy skull for Halloween, but a replacement for damaged human bone.  Done.

Earlier this year, a New Jersey man received a 3D printed, plastic skull implant, to replace skull bone damaged by infection.

Doctor Gaurav Gupta used PEEK (polyetheretherketone, which is why it’s called “PEEK”) – to create a customized cranial implant – made specifically for that patient, based on the CT scan of that patient.

As Gupta explained, “PEEK is an inert substance that does not cause an inflammatory reaction, there are no known allergies to it, and it is not rejected by the body.  The implants are also impact-resistant, fracture-resistant, and do not erode or dissolve.”

And yes, the patient’s skin goes over the implant, so as the New Jersey patient put it, “I look exactly the same and feel like myself again.”

That also is happening today, though also not routinely.  Yet.

If the imposter jewelry from Ocean’s 8 still impresses you more, here’s some good news: Lockheed Martin in 2016 filed a patent to print their own diamonds.

But while advertisers will say jewelry is the “key to her heart,” we all know the heart matters most. Medical advances depend on many things, but petrochemicals, the chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are an essential ingredient of the plastics and other materials that 3D printers are turning into these medical miracles of the future.

Doctor Jason Chuen summed up that future this way, “I think we are moving towards a world where if you can imagine it, you will be able to print it – so we need to start imagining.”