The next big innovation in healthcare may very well be a printer. But this is no ordinary printer.

Professor Lee Cronin heads up a world-class team of 45 researchers at Glasgow University in Scotland. His team has figured out how to turn a 3D printer into a sort of universal chemistry set capable of “printing” prescription drugs via downloadable chemistry.

According to Cronin, since nearly all drugs are made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, along with readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin, a printer can be developed with a relatively small number of “inks” to make virtually any organic molecule.

However, as you might imagine, not everyone is welcoming this type of innovation with open arms. Here are some of the likely implications this radical new technology may have on the health of humanity.

Controllers of the Supply Lines

Solving world problems is never simple. Researchers currently estimate 13% of the world’s population goes to bed hungry every night. Yes, we have gone from 26% of the world population being undernourished in the 1960 to 13% today, but it remains an excruciatingly high number.

The problem doesn’t stem from a lack of food. World agriculture produces 17% more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70% population increase.

The principal problem stems from governments that repress economic activities and archaic distribution systems bottlenecked by local powerbrokers that would rather see people die than lose an opportunity to make money.

At the same time that people are dying of starvation, roughly 50% of all the food in the world goes to waste. Small percentages of food are lost in the farmer’s fields, on trucks and through delivery systems, in food processing plants, on store shelves, and in our own homes. Altogether, these tiny slivers of inefficiencies add up to a huge number.

For many people, pharmaceuticals are as important as food, and the supply lines are equally complex. Anything that can be done to circumvent our current power brokers and barriers to entry should be welcomed with open arms. But life is never that simple.

Professor Lee Cronin and his pill printer

Can We “App” Chemistry?

Professor Cronin’s latest TED talk dealt with the simple question: “Can we make a really cool universal chemistry set?” and “Can we ‘app’ chemistry?”

He thinks in terms of “what Apple did for music,” he’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.

As a first step, Cronin’s team is looking at ways in which a relatively simple drug – ibuprofen – can be produced with his 3D printer or “chemputer”. If they can accomplish that, the possibilities suddenly seem endless.

“Imagine your printer like a refrigerator that is full of all the ingredients you might require to make any recipe in a giant new cook book,” Cronin says. “If you apply that idea to making drugs, you have all your ingredients and you follow a recipe that a drug company gives you. The value is in the recipe, not in the manufacturing of it. It is essentially an app.”

The Coming Pharma Wars

In the same way music downloads have disrupted the music industry, downloadable pharmaceutical recipes piped directly into pill replicators will have huge implications for an industry that spends billions every year on research and development.

On one hand, drug companies are constantly looking for new ways to shut down the underground counterfeit drug trade that is pervasive in many third world countries. Phony knockoffs are neither produced to exacting specification, nor are they even made with the same chemicals.

Having cheap delivery mechanisms that could print pills to an exact specification would enable legitimate pharmaceutical companies to regain at least some control over this subversive market.

But much the way Napster cut the legs out from under major record labels, floating digital drug formulas may cause them to lose more control than they gain. Very likely, big pharma will do everything it can to block the proliferation of pill printers, until they can find ways to make the pipeline safe and secure.

Huge New Opportunity for the Illegal Drug Trade

With a tool like this, the scriptwriters for “Breaking Bad” will have to rethink their plot lines, and Mafia kingpins will be paying very close attention as details emerge.

Even though it’s being developed with the best of intentions, the “Chemputer” will have the ability to produce illegal narcotics with no discernable chemical trail.

Marijuana and cocaine drug trades both have elaborate growing networks tied to equally sophisticated supply lines and production facilities. The world of “meth” was created to circumvent the problems associated with the labor-intensive drug operations of the past.

In addition to eliminating most of the supply chain, the “Chemputer” will have the ability to alter recreational drug formulations on an ongoing basis to keep the products legal as lawmakers play their whack-a-mole game of banning the newly created substances on a monthly basis.

Future Possibilities

Working with a “Chemputer” will give us the ability to create industries that work with far more precision than anything available today. Think of the idea of “per­fect water.“

We all know pol­luted water is bad for us. If we take every­thing out of it and create distilled water, it’s less than opti­mal. Some­where in this whole spectrum of water is what I think of as “perfect water.” But it’s only perfect for one person at that exact moment in time.

Every person on earth will have his or her own formulation of “perfect water.” So we will have 7 billion formulations (one for every person on earth), and each of these formulations will change every second of every day as our metabolisms change.

Somewhere in this line of thinking is the ultimate interface. So far we haven’t had the ability to work with that level of precision.

As example, doctors today prescribe medications for a patient in doses of either 200 or 400 milligrams, when the ideal dosage might be 147 milligrams or 369 milligrams.

By using the “Chemputer,” we may eventually be able to create consumer products with this level of granularity.

In addition to increased precision, we will also develop new ways to deliver medicines.

Nutraceuticals, also known as bioceuticals, encompass a large spectrum of food and food-based products that are tied to the practice of holistic and alternative medicine. Using food printers instead of pill printers, medicines could be delivered in cupcakes instead of tablets.

Final Thoughts

Lee Cronin’s ideas are sure to be a disruptive force in future healthcare. His concepts will also quickly permeate the entire chemistry profession, and my discussions about developing a pharmaceutical-grade pill printer are just scratching the surface of its true potential.

Yes, it will very likely follow down the path of Gartner’s famed hype cycle, and we won’t know its true potential for several years. But it is giving us a new perspective on a very old profession.

An open source drug movement may very well be as dramatic a shift to societal norms as the Internet itself.

Professor Cronin is a naturally impatient person and wants to quickly expand the possibilities. “As well as transforming the industry and making money,” he says, “we could be saving lives. So why should we wait?”

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future – the book that changes everything

7 Responses to “Inventing the 3D Pill Printer”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    After I read Drexler's book in the late 90s on nanotechnology, I often wondered what would individuals do with the capability of changing anything into anything? Whether it's nanotech, 3D printers, or a combination, we are headed into a mind-stretching, boundary-breaking future.
  2. Greg B

    I have a healthcare company and have a solid knowledge of the Pharma industry. Nice invention, nevertheless hire a good lawyer, you will need one. You have NO commercial outlet that would not trigger patent suits. I know what I am talking about, good Idea ...bad strategy. If you commercialize this invention which I cannot see how because you end user will not want to deal with the financial back lash that would await them. Worse yet an App well try calling Apple and Google, I do not thin they would want the liability. I build digital marketing platforms for Pharma. I would not publish this otherwise the phone will shortly start ringing. Sorry, Greg
    • admin

      Greg, Thanks for your comments, but keep in mine, nothing causes an entrepreneur to shift into overdrive quite like someone saying "it can't be done." No, I'm not the inventor, nor do I have any stake in its success. But I have yet to see an industry or system where the current power structures cannot be circumvented. It may take some time, but someone will eventually figure out a way to crack the code. Tom
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom Piracy is a natural distribution process. Ford built his car. Others shought to compete. Every idea is the germ of copiers and pirates. Laws only delay finding of ways to compete with the original. >> I am launching innovation processes named "InnoKits." You were a client of those processes a decade ago. In my case, I have set prices low to remove cost barriers. >> On the other hand, my innovation is a complete business. If pirates expand the market, I have helped more individuals and businesses. My products are images and words. Printers are exactly the way to piriate. I'd like some income from the process, yet I expect my impact (if any) to be from the flow of ideas that will come when thousands of innovators work to improve and advance the ToolKits for their own benefits. (see or the blog at
  4. Seamus Treanor

    How much more would I pay for a good brand that fitted my metabolism as opposed to a generic whose recipe I picked up from Wikileaks? And how elastic would the price be to a diabetic child’s mother in Afghanistan or in Boston? I think the game changing comparison to music and Napster applies to the illegal drug but much less the legal drug industry. The lawyers might hold back the tide in the US but the money to be made and the benefits to be paid for in the rest of the world will make it happen. If the proof of concept works Big Pharma will be promoting this all the way. The punchline will be the ink: if you think the prices on ordinary branded ink cartridges are extortionate just think how much more paranoid you’ll be about your medicines. A ‘use-by date’ for oxygen perhaps?
  5. Erik van Z

    What if this may lead to machines that are able to chemprint microchips? If that becomes possible the next step could possibly be to develop a machine that can make an exact copy of itself, which could be used to colonize the planet Mars. A machine that can produce a copy of itself out of bare rock. If such a machine is able to perform such a copy-task in two weeks, than you'll have over 67 million of those machines in one year if that's the only task those machines perform during one year. Machines that are able to copy themselves must also be able to create anything which we know how to engineer.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Neil E. Rand, PhD</a>

    Dr. Frey, Very thought-provoking blog! I have some thoughts I would like to share with you on this topic, as well as some questions that have come to mind after reading your excellent article. My first question is: It's been two years since you wrote this article in Oct. 2012, so what is the current status of the 3-D "chemprinter?" Is it now ready for use? One consideration not in the article is that the Federal Government might simply decide to make the 3-D "pill printer" illegal, similar to current laws prohibiting the use or possession of "drug paraphernalia." If this should happen, the only ones possessing this type of 3-D printer would be drug companies and illegal drug dealers - similar to how things are today. My guess is in this scenario there would be far more illegal pill printers/consumers/dealers than the present number of illegal drug dealers. Think about it: No meth labs that might blow up and kill you, no need to deal with armed criminals who might shoot you and keep your money, no need for anyone to smuggle illegal items across boarders. Just turn on your 3-D printer and wait for the pills to pop out in the privacy of you own home. Another consideration: If your husband or your wife or your parent or your child or someone else you love is dying from cancer or some other major illness and you don't have the money to pay for expensive treatments, hospitalizations, medical specialists, nursing care, counseling and hugely expensive drugs for this person you love, wouldn't it be a natural choice to simply buy a 3-D "pill printer" and the apps you need? Wouldn't this especially be the choice to make if your health insurance company tells you that they won’t pay for what they consider “experimental treatments,” overpriced drugs and the other costs they feel are inflated? Most people can’t afford to pay huge medical costs. This awful scenario has created, and continues to create to this day, a very painful dilemma when a family member is severely ill or injured and their health insurance company just says “No!” A 3-D “pill printer” provides these families with another choice – a choice they can afford. Their stress level will then decrease because they don’t have to become ever more worried, frustrated, anxious and stressed as a mountain of medical bills they can’t pay piles up in front of them. A third consideration is: Legal "pill printers" would put pharmacies out of business, as well as putting all the people who currently work at manufacturing, shipping, distributing and/or delivering pharmaceuticals(i.e. truck drivers, pilots)onto the unemployment lines. A silver lining for this dark cloud of large numbers of people becoming unemployed is that thousands of jobs would open up for employment counselors, social workers, job search agencies, food stamp workers and the like. However, the number of jobs created would only be a fraction of the number of jobs lost - and as the unemployed find new jobs, the need for these employment counselors, social workers, etc. would decrease and they too would be laid off. A second silver lining would be the creation of thousands of new jobs in new companies that would be manufacturing the 3-D "pill printers" as well as software engineers to develop the new apps that would be needed. This would be a whole new industry growing up within the healthcare sector. A fourth consideration: What about the effect on physicians and the practice of medicine? If people can print their own pills there's no need to go to the doctor and pay for office visits, physical examinations and costly tests. They could skip all this by checking out what they need on WebMD or some similar website and then buying an app. There would be no more waiting a month for a 10-minute appointment with the doctor, filling out endless forms and having to deal with health insurance companies who may or may not pay for all these medical costs. A third silver lining would be that U.S. healthcare costs would not only stop their rapid increase, but would actually be reduced. In this scenario health insurance companies would be forced to reduce their premiums, doctors would be forced to reduce there fees and hospitals would be forced to make sharp cuts in their charges. As Medicare and Medicaid costs decrease, real progress toward reducing the Federal deficit could actually occur rather than just be continuously demanded by the public and endlessly debated but not acted on by our elected lawmakers in Congress. However, I don't see any way that Big Pharma as it is presently constituted would permit people to print their own medications - particularly those medications these drug companies hold patents on. These drug companies would be giving up the $300 billion they presently make annually in profits. This, of course, would not make their shareholders very happy. If large numbers of people legally buy these 3-D "pill printers," pharmaceutical companies could recover some of their lost direct sales through pharmacies by charging a royalty on every pill printed that they have a patent on. If this takes place, they might end up making greater profits in the long run than they make now (due to shedding the costs of all manufacturing and distribution employees, equipment, vehicles and facilities). At this point in time, it's hard to tell what the fallout due to such a major change would be, no less pick out the winners and the losers. It would be similar to a person back in the year 1900 guessing at the impacts on society and on individual people due to the creation of the internet, cell phones, tablets and lap top computers - as well as picking winners and losers resulting from all this technological change and societal upheaval. How could this person living in 1900 even conceive of what software is, no less how valuable some software programs have become or the major impacts they have had on the lives of individual people (e.g. telecommuting). More questions: Would the FDA step in to regulate and control all the apps that would be created to print pills? Would this lead to the creation of organized crime and a black market in pill apps, as what occurred in reaction to Prohibition in the 1920's? One industry that would benefit greatly would be the marketing, advertising and sales industry. I can't even imagine the size of the huge tidal wave of TV ads for medications that would take place in order to sell drugs and the apps for printing them to the public! One thing that can be predicted with certainty is that drug companies, pharmacies, physicians (the AMA) and all the others whose incomes would be threatened by this innovation would band together and create a powerful force to lobby Congress for new laws and regulations that would benefit them, give them more control of the market and prevent any scenario from occurring that would cause them to experience a decrease in income. This has happened before when these groups felt threatened (e.g. laws that were passed making Rife technology, including a harmless but highly advanced microscope, illegal to possess or use). One psychological factor to note is that the "control" of the drug market being sought by the drug companies and others in this sector is an illusion. Once the 3-D "pill printer" is legally put on the market, any attempt to exert control by any of the major players will be futile - although it may take them years and the expenditure of billions of dollars before they finally realize it. This 3-D "pill printer," if it is allowed to come to pass, represents a revolution in the social aspects of all these areas of the healthcare sector - as well as a major financial impact that over time will redistribute trillions of dollars in healthcare income in ways that at this point in time we can only guess at. As I have written this and considered some of the consequences resulting from this innovation, one thing that has become exceedingly clear to me is that the 3-D "pill printer" will have a profound effect upon our current healthcare system - and on each one of us as well. So, thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking article! The ideas just kept coming to my mind. It was better exercise for my brain than Best regards, Neil E. Rand, Ph.D. Consultant, Speaker, Author & Psychotherapist Colorado Springs, CO

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