James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, a prosthetic hand, and models of Neanderthal skulls have something interesting in common: they’ve all been created through a process called “additive manufacturing”, which is more commonly known as 3D printing. With a seemingly endless number of applications and growing retail potential, the topic of 3D printing pops up frequently within mainstream news media.
Currently, a PubMed search for 3D printing and additive manufacturing returns over 800 articles, which span a plethora of research disciplines, from materials science to tissue engineering. While you might expect the media hype about 3D printing to drive social media sharing of many of these scholarly articles, only a small number of 3D printer-related papers actually received a significant amount of online attention. And although much media excitement surrounds research on tissue and organ creation using 3D printing, the 2 most popular papers about this technology in the Altmetric database are actually all about materials.
Conversing about carbomorph: futuristic design materials
Much of the online interest around 3D printers centres around the alluring DIY possibilities. As costs for 3D printers continue to drop, home printing is becoming more feasible. A recent paper by Leigh et al. “A Simple, Low-Cost Conductive Composite Material for 3D Printing of Electronic Sensors” (published on 21 November 2012 in PLOS ONE) sparked the imaginations of online users with its characterisation of “carbomorph”, a conductive material that can be used to print electronic components at very low cost.
— Russell Neches (@ryneches) November 30, 2012
In addition to pointing out the usefulness of carbomorph in science, the paper also indicated that the material would be valuable for non-scientists, including designers and artists. The broad applicability of 3D printing with carbomorph could explain why the paper was so widely shared on multiple social media channels (see Altmetric details). Even the Science Museum in London tweeted about the research, expanding the impact to the work by directing people to a gallery called ‘Will 3D printing turn you into a designer?’, which featured the paper’s first author Simon Leigh:
— Science Museum (@sciencemuseum) November 22, 2012
Reactions to reactionware: thinking outside the beaker
After coining an awesome new word (“reactionware”) and publishing a fascinating report in Nature Chemistry, the Cronin laboratory at the University of Glasgow has been the focus of numerous news stories and social media mentions. Their highly-accessed paper, “Integrated 3D-printed reactionware for chemical synthesis and analysis” (by Symes et al. and published on 15 April 2012), described a new method for printing custom reaction vessels which can participate in chemical reactions. This concept was embraced by scientists and members of the public for its creativity (see Altmetric details for the paper; and for the Nature News feature):
Nature Mag:Using 3D printers to reinvent the lab.Flexible beakers and self-sealing containers.Wow.bit.ly/HCdibA
— John Robb (@johnrobb) April 16, 2012
The paper piqued the interest of a broad audience, partially because of the intriguing possible applications in drug design and production. (These aspects were highlighted in a BBC News article and a blog post on Medgadget.) Additionally, the rising DIY culture of 3D printing was highlighted in a tweet by Lee Cronin, the principal investigator of the research:
The revolution begins: bit.ly/INyzPp In this paper we describe how to merge the reaction with the reactor to give reactionware.
— Prof. Lee Cronin (@leecronin) April 15, 2012
Impact through inspiration
Part of the joy of contributing to science comes from being able to solve tough problems using creative methods. As we’ve seen from the 2 examples outlined above, 3D printing can potentially be harnessed to solve various problems in many domains, including science and medicine. It’ll certainly be fascinating to follow the future developments that will inevitably grow from these particular research papers.
New technology changes quickly, but in comparison, the pace of traditional academic discourse can be relatively slow. As a result, rapid online sharing and discussion of exciting new papers is one of the best ways to bring widely-applicable methods, techniques, and technologies to the attention of a huge number of researchers. This exposure to different ideas from other disciplines might subsequently stimulate creativity, helping these researchers to generate new ideas. In conclusion, sharing a paper about a cool scientific technology can not only provide hints of possible future applications, but can also help to broaden impact of the research through inspiration.