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Luis Alvarez Talks With Rebecca Costa about 3D Printing

Alvarez Talks Tech – August 17, 2012

Rebecca Costa: Let’s talk to Mr. Luis Alvarez, CEO of Alvarez Technology Group and find out what’s happening in the ever changing world of technology. Welcome back to the Costa Report, Mr. Alvarez.

Luis Alvarez: How are you today, Rebecca?

RC: I’m fine. We’ve had our share of technical faux pas here, and all I can do is laugh. You put your hands up to the heavens and you say, “Are you enjoying this? Are you having fun?”

LA: Sometimes that’s the best approach.

RC: It is. So, what’s the latest in technology?

LA: There are technological innovations that can be cold and boring, and we’ve seen lots of those. But then there are some really freakin’ cool technologies out there that make you say what the? … And I recently learned about one of these technologies. You watched “Star Trek” back in the day, right?

RC: Well, back in the day, well, yes. As a matter of fact, I was a pretty big fan.

LA: Yeah, sorry, rhetorical question. You know, it’s hard to believe that that show premiered 46 years ago.

RC: Oh, my goodness.

LA: I know, we age ourselves. But since then, we’ve seen a lot of the “Star Trek” pretend gadgets turned into real devices that we use today. The communicator became the mobile phone. The tri-corder became the first tablet. But the device that most impressed me – aside from the transporter, by the way — was the replicator. If you recall, that was that magical gizmo that you were able to use to get anything you needed on demand, even food.

RC: Right.

LA: Well, it turns out the replicator may be the next “Star Trek” pretend gadget to become reality. It starts with a concept known as 3D printing. Think about a standard printer that prints on a flat sheet of paper and then consider what that device might be able to do if it could print in three dimensions. Rather than using ink, a 3D printer uses layers of material like plastic, rubber of titanium to create a three-dimensional object.

RC: Like a model you mean?

LA: Like a model, yeah. Using 3D printing, you forego the traditional method of casting and molding to manufacture a thing. Instead, you use a computer to design the thing you want to make, and then you send the specs that the computer creates to a special printer that goes to work printing or manufacturing the thing, voilà, it’s ready for you just like the replicator.

RC: Okay. That really sounds a little out of this world, even for “Star Trek.” Are you telling us that this 3D printing technology is actually being used today?

LA: Absolutely, and not just by small startups working on the fringes. For example, the US Air Force is using 3D printing to manufacture components for their unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs as they’re commonly called. And BMW’s using this technology to print or manufacture some devices for their cars, which saves them over 58% or so of the cost of building those things using traditional manufacturing techniques. In fact, some people are predicting that 3D printing and similar technologies will profoundly change the way we manufacture products in the very near future … so much so that it could completely change the way things are made. Imagine what the future looks like. You’re riding your bike along some steep trail and you break the front fork. Rather than go to the bike shop and have them order the part and wait for them to get it fixed, you go home, you call up the bike manufacturer’s website, download the specs for the bike fork from their site for a fee of some sort. Then you send it to your 3D printer and it prints the part overnight while you sleep. In the morning, you install your newly minted part on the bike, and you’re done. Kind of cool, huh?

RC: Yeah. It sounds cool, but it’s so hard to believe. How realistic is this scenario you’re describing? I’m having a hard time believing that these 3D printers actually exist.

LA: Like I said, companies like BMW and government agencies like the Air Force are already doing it. But it gets even more interesting. There’s a gentleman you know, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, a billionaire with more money than he knows what to do with apparently. He’s investing in a company called Modern Meadow, which is developing something called bio-printing.

RC: Bio-printing. Okay, this is sounding like “Weird Science.”

LA: Well, it is “Weird Science,” but it’s a good thing, especially if you like meat. What Modern Meadow is trying to do is use 3D printing technology to manufacture life-like replicas of traditional meat products like pork chops or rib eye steaks without having to go through the hassle of farming livestock. Some of the motivation of the company is to go after that small segment of the market that’s made up of vegetarians or vegans who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons and folks with religious restrictions in their diets. What could be more kosher than a meat spilling forth from a printer rather than tainted farm animals? Aside from creating the perfect filet mignon, 3D printing has some seriously beneficial applications when it comes to bio-printing. Scientists are already experimenting with it. When it comes to regenerative medicine, the idea here is that someday doctors will be able to print custom designed, person-specific organs to replace a failed organ. Imagine a day when you can go to the doctor and rather than have to wait for a donor, she just takes a DNA sample from you and prints the organ while you wait for it to be ready to put into you. It really is what the future looks like.

RC: I’m speechless. I’m speechless. This is not what I thought we would be talking about today. We need to do a whole program on this bio-printing, because it sounds like if we can reproduce organs – first of all, what would be the materials? What would you load into the ink cartridge? I mean, right now, we’re loading trays of paper and ink. But I’m trying to understand how they get the materials in there.

LA: Well, they use bio-cellulose material, the same sort of thing that they build in a lab. Obviously this is not going to happen next week or next year, but it’s what scientists are working on. They’ve already built really, really small bio-organs, things like fingernails and teeth. So, the idea that they can manufacture an organ that’s designed to fit into your body, using your DNA so it can’t be rejected, it’s what they’re aiming for. And it’s going to happen sometime in the next decade.

RC: I’m sure you’re right, and it’s just frightening. We’re out of time, but as always, it is a pleasure to hear from you again. And I think we look forward to finding out even more on our next program.

LA: Well, thank you, Rebecca. This is Luis Alvarez of the Alvarez Technology Group reminding everyone that when it comes to technology, forewarned is forearmed.

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