Just Like an Inkjet Printer, Sort Of
The idea of 3-D printing evolved directly from a technology everyone knows: the inkjet printer. Watch your HP or Epson machine churn out a printed page, and you'll notice that the print head, driven by a motor, moves in horizontal strips across a sheet of paper. As it moves, ink stored in a cartridge sprays through tiny nozzles and falls on the page in a series of fine drops. The drops build up to create an image, with higher-resolution settings depositing more ink than lower-resolution settings. To achieve full top-to-bottom coverage, the paper sheet, located beneath the print head, rolls up vertically.
The limitation of inkjet printers is that they only print in two dimensions -- along the x- and y-axes. A 3-D printer overcomes this by adding a mechanism to print along an additional axis, usually labeled the z-axis in mathematical applications. This mechanism is an elevator that moves a platform up and down. With such an arrangement, the ink head can lay down material from side to side, but it can also deposit layers vertically as the elevator draws the platform down and away from the print head. Fill the cartridge with plastic, and the printer will output a three-dimensional plastic widget. Fill it with cells, and it will output a mass of cells.
Conceptually, bioprinting is really that simple. In reality, it's a bit more challenging because an organ contains more than one type of material. And because the material is living tissue, it needs to receive nutrients and oxygen. To accommodate this, bioprinting companies have modified their 3-D printers to better serve the medical community.