Imagine if you could take a digital model of anything and print out the actual physical object. Thanks to a new technology called 3D printing, you can. This new technology has countless uses, but here in Columbia, several MU researchers are exploring its potential in the medical field.
Just like a traditional printer, 3D printers take digital files and make them a physical reality. But instead of printing with ink, 3D printers use materials like plastic and metal to print entire objects.
“So what the printer’s doing instead of printing out on sheets of paper," said Mike Klote, who runs the rapid prototyping lab in MU's engineering school. "They print out with whatever material they happen to have for that particular slice. So you build the model one slice at a time, from the bottom up.”
Klote said the lab’s five different printers have extremely high quality and accuracy. Even still, they use similar parts that you would find inside your regular office printer.
“This particular machine uses a liquid binder," said Klote. "Which is really just kind of a glue, a liquid glue, and we use actual inkjet print heads that you’re probably really familiar with.
MU School of medicine fellow Josh Arnone gestured to a machine called the replicator: "It’s a desktop 3D printer by MakerBot. It’s got a frame built out of balsa wood and I’ve built my own enclosure for it. It’s pretty crude, but it works really well.
Arnone uses 3D printing to invent devices that will help surgeons perform their jobs better. Recently, he invented a kind of implant that goes into the human heart to protect against stroke during surgery. To test it out, he had a model of a real aorta printed out of flexible plastic.
“Before we tried our device in humans and in animals, we wanted to have a model to test our device in. So, we managed to get a hold of a CT scan, and took data from that CT scan and turned it into a 3D model, and then we sent that to the rapid prototyping lab here at the university, they printed it off for us, with a rubber type material within a few days, and then we used it to do some preliminary testing.”
Arnone said the surgeons he works with want to actually hold these inventions in their hands instead of just looking at them on a computer screen.
“Traditionally you’ve had to hire a machinist or work through a manufacturing company to injection mold parts" said Arnone. "[It's] very expensive, takes a lot of time. Well now, I’ve got a part here in my hand right now that would have taken weeks to build and thousands and thousands of dollars to make. And, we printed it within a couple of days, and it cost less than 100 dollars. ”
Arnone believes 3D printing will bring about a second industrial revolution. Engineering student Alex Madinger plans to start his own 3D printing business when he graduates.
“I didn’t realize it at first," said Madinger, "but now that I’ve been using 3D printing for only just a year, I interact with objects differently now. I see them in a new light, it’s not ‘oh, that was made somewhere far away.’ I look at it and think ‘I could make that.’ Or, ‘I could make that better.’ You start to see objects in a new light and you move from being a consumer, to being a producer.”
He said there’s even a possibility of printing human organs out of real human cells to be used for clinical testing.
“Eventually, they hope to start putting them in people. And if you have some complications and can’t find a donor, they hope to be able to produce an organ for you from your own cells.”
Madinger said personal desktop printers are now available for two to three thousand dollars each. In fact, according to Mashable, you can now buy a 3D printer from Staples.
It’s really coming up hot that home printing’s becoming a reality. My question for you is what would you make?
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Josh Arnone. It was Alex Madinger that commented on interacting with objects differently.