Updated: Oct 4, 2019
The field of bionics is the best example of the fact that science and technology are largely inspired by nature. While bionics can be broadly defined as biologically inspired engineering, it emphasizes on imitating certain biological functions that can be seen in nature. For instance, technologies like sonar, radar and medical ultrasound are inspired by animal echolocation. Velcro is another system that has been developed by observation of tiny hooks found on the surface of burs. Research and development in the field of bionics have had the highest impact in the healthcare sector as manufacturing of bionic limbs is catching speed in recent years. The advent of 3D printing has added an edge to the domain of bionics as it gives freedom to bionic experts and innovators in developing customized bionic components in lesser time.
Areas of application
In the case of bionic implants, there are four broad areas of application – vision, orthopaedics, hearing and neurology. Out of these, neurological bionics comprise a tiny section of the entire developments in the domain.
Fabrication of bionic eye might seem to be a boon for the partially or completely blind but research in this area is still in a nascent stage. Few prototypes of the bionic eye that have been developed, consisting of bio-electronic implants that can mimic the retinal function. In 2018, a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota became the first to 3D-print a prototype of a bionic eye. The researchers embedded semiconducting polymer materials on a hemispherical surface to print photodiodes, which were used to convert light into electricity. California based Second Sight Medical Products of Sylmar is one of the foremost players in the realm of bionic eye fabrication. Its bionic eye prototype named Argus II implants a microelectronic array on the retina and processes images using a wearable camera and an image processing unit. The array, fed by images through the camera transforms light signals into electrical impulses which in turn stimulates the retinal cells. Other prominent players in this sector are French organization Pixium Vision, Bionic Vision Australia research consortium, and Germany based Retinal Implant AG.
Bionic limbs are by far the most widely used bionic products and have replaced prosthetics to a large extent. An advantage that bionic limbs have over prosthetics is their ability to render better motor functionality to damaged limbs. 3D printed bionic limbs are helping millions of people to fight their disabilities. Bionic limbs link a person’s neuromuscular system with the brain for various functions like flexing, bending and grasping. The UK based Open Bionics has built upon the popularity of superhero movies like Iron Man to create the Hero Arm, a 3D-printed bionic arm that includes fancy features like haptic vibrations, beepers, buttons and lights, besides the basic motor functionality enabling the feature. Myoelectric sensors embedded in the Hero Arm lets patients mimic hand-like movements as precisely as possible. Italian company Youbionic provides similar customized bionic arms. German company Ottobock is the market leader in bionic prosthetics, Having been associated with the production of bionic limbs for over 20 years. It was the first firm to have created a completely microprocessor-controlled lower limb prosthesis system.
Cochlear hearing implants are the bionic systems used to assist people with severe hearing disabilities. Auditory bionics includes a microelectronic array implanted either in the cochlea or the brain stem. The external component of the auditory bionics includes one or more microphones and the sound processor that transmits sound signals as electrical impulses to the brain. The brain senses these impulses as sound signals and gives the person a sense of hearing similar to normal hearing. Professor Graeme Clark is credited with inventing the first cochlear implant system back in 1978. Today, Cochlear Limited in Canada is the global leader in the production of cochlear implant solutions.
Although a tiny spec in the emerging market of 3D printed bionics, research in neurological bionics is gaining speed in recent years. After years of research, Bivacor, a private medical company has developed a bionic heart that runs on magnetic levitation technique. The bionic heart consists of a system that spins a disc at extremely fast speeds to pump blood to the body and return oxygen-depleted blood to the lungs. Scientists at the Tel Aviv University have claimed to 3D-print a miniature heart from human tissue that includes vessels, collagen, and biological molecules. This achievement has paved the way for further advancement in 3D printing of bionics and promises to be a game-changer in the field of healthcare.
Bionic 3D printing market
The bionic 3D-printing market is set to grow bigger in the coming years. A number of players such as Envisiontec Inc., Stratasys Ltd., Materialise, 3D Systems, Inc., Bio-Rad Laboratories, Organovo Holdings Inc., Simbionix USA Corporation, Metamason Inc., Youbionic, Bio3D Technologies Pte Ltd, and 3D Matters have emerged in the bionic 3D-printing arena over the years. The future of bionic 3D-printing lies in developing robotic exoskeletons made popular by movies like Iron Man. The bionic 3D-printing business not only targets physically disabled people but also aims at providing enhanced motor functionality to able people. Organizations are investing in research and development of such bionic exoskeletons that can enhance physical abilities for industrial applications and assist patients suffering from an acute neural disability or spinal injuries.