By now most of the sort of people who read my blogs are aware of the rise of 3D printing. These are the new machines that use molten plastic (or other substances) to print objects layer-by-layer. They are already being used to produce everything from cable clips, to replacement parts, to toys, to sculptures, and as the prices are now dropping below the $1000 range they can be expected to be a common household item over the coming decade. 

However researchers at Princeton University have found a new application for 3D printing. 

Using a modified device that can be easily purchased off-the-shelf (or online) scientists 'printed' a functional ear using living cells and nanoparticles instead of printer ink. It is a combination of tissue and a coil antenna, which was then grown into a bionic ear. This artificial ear had been shown to hear sounds of frequencies well below human abilities, and in principle could be transplanted onto a living creature in the not-too-distant future. 

In the past researchers have been able to meld electronics and living tissue by building layers of each, with limited results. This new achievement though has demonstrated the possibility that bionic organs can be generated with 3D electronics circuitry inside, and a full enmeshment with the organic matter. And it can be done with existing 3D printers costing only a few thousand dollars, making it an affordable option for smaller hospitals in the future.

Although this is just a small first step, it is not difficult to see a day when every hospital contains a specialize medical printer that can generate custom replacement parts for individual patients. And perhaps as well, a market for improved parts that go beyond the current capabilities of the human body. Only time will tell if humanity is ready for that leap forward...