Seven second tablets

A 3D printer creating a lolly in 2015 by waiting for each layer to dry. PICTURE: MAGIC CANDY FACTORY

Paracetamol tablets can now be 3D-printed within seconds. According to a study led by University College London (UCL), the technique could enable fast, onsite production of medicines, which is about to be published in the journal Additive Manufacturing.

Researchers used a new technique, but 3D printing, called additive manufacturing, has been used since the 1980s.

A home or office inkjet printer which prints off a picture of a lolly is a two-dimensional (2D) printer. An image is sent from the computer to the printer. As the printer tip moves across the page, it sprays different coloured inks from ink cartridges.

In three-dimensional (3D) printing, a 3D design is sent from the computer to the 3D printer. As the printer tip moves, like a piping bag, it releases different coloured heated food pastes from food tubes. Like a 2D inkjet printer, it makes one layer, waits for the layer to dry then does a second layer. It keeps stacking thin layers until the lolly looks like a usual lolly, which can take from minutes to days. The lolly is safe and edible, just like any lolly.

3D-printed meat has ingredients that are all plant-based or grown from stem cells.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) did a trial of 3D-printed chicken nuggets in Russia in 2020, which it called “the world’s first laboratory-produced chicken nuggets.”

3D printing is also used to create many objects, including body parts and furniture.

In 2019, an IKEA collaboration called ThisAbles created 3D-printed add-ons for its furniture for people with disabilities. These included a long tap handle, sofa leg extenders and a big button for a lamp. The designs can be downloaded for free and printed on home 3D printers.

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Tablets were already being 3D-printed by Professor Abdul Basit’s team at UCL, including polypills, for people who need to take multiple medications each day, and tablets with braille patterns, for visually impaired people.

However, the tablets took minutes to print, so the UCL researchers devised a different method of 3D printing.

They printed the entire paracetamol tablet all at once in just seven to 17 seconds, depending on the composition of the resin, which contains the tablet ingredients.

The researchers caused polymerisation, when small molecules chemically change into long chains, creating 3D objects.

They did this by shining multiple images of the object from different angles onto the resin. The amount of light shone gradually accumulated until polymerisation occurred.

Researchers hope that 3D tablet printers will be in hospital emergency wards and doctors’ surgeries and perhaps even in resource-limited areas.

After more trials and regulatory approval, a patient could have a medical 3D printer at home, the size of a coffee machine.

A doctor could check remotely that the patient is sticking to the treatment plan.

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“This technology could be a game-changer for the pharmaceutical industry,” said co-lead author Dr Alvaro Goyanes.

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