3-D printing brings biomedical, Penn State research projects to fruition

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- 3-D printing -- a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file -- is leading the way in biotechnology, making open-heart surgery a bit less frightening for patients and surgeons.

In the Center of Network-Centric Cognition and Information Fusion’s (NC2IF) Extreme Events Laboratory (EEL) at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), home of the Center’s MakerBot Replicator 2 3-D printer, research may not be of life and death importance, but it still carries significance. The researchers work to connect the technology of 3-D printing with organizations and departments across Penn State that can utilize printers to make research projects more feasible and cost effective.

“Our general research looks at the impact of using 3-D printing to rapidly prototype devices, and to create prototypes in order to obtain feedback from potential users,” said David Hall, a professor of IST and founding director of NC2IF.

According to an Oct. 4 article posted on the British website http://www.independent.co.uk/, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City recently created an exact replica of a 2-week-old child’s damaged heart in an effort to give surgeons a “road map” for advanced planning of a complicated procedure.

Surgeons used the fabricated organ to study the unusually formed chambers in hopes of decreasing the danger involved with pediatric thoracic surgery, a technique impossible to accomplish in the past without stopping the heart and opening the chest.

“Technology is still 10 to 20 years away from using 3-D technology to completely replicate an organ for assimilation into the human body,” said Wade Shumaker, a 3-D visualization researcher at NC2IF.

“Printing organs that have inherent knowledge in the cells to perform, like a heart that knows how to beat, is the tricky part,” he added.

Although Shumaker expressed excitement about current biotechnology breakthroughs, he says he is not currently involved with biotechnical printing research.

Examples of the NC2IF’s 3-D printing projects include a collaboration with a forensic artist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that shortened the process of traditional clay modeled age progressions and enabled the artist to print out a physical copy of the model using a computer and a haptic device (to provide touch feedback). What would have taken weeks was whittled down to a couple of days, according to Hall.

More recent projects are “mock crime scenes” staged for Penn State’s Forensic Science department, in which evidence is created using 3-D scanners and printers to preserve the integrity of investigative materials.

“Unlike normal manufacturing in which tools are developed to create many copies of a designated item, in 3-D printing one-of-a-kind items can be designed and printed,” Hall said. “Think of a relationship between calligraphy (in which a writer/artist painstakingly creates each letter and word for a single document), compared to how we print using our computer today.”

Relationships like this, using 3-D printing technology to bring experimental projects to fruition, is exactly what Shumaker hopes for the future of NC2IF’s 3-D printer.

“I’d love to see it used more often to bring projects to life,” he said. “I’m hoping that more faculty members will want to use the printer for class projects in the future.”

And so, while there is little doubt that 3-D printing technology is saving lives in the operating room, the College of IST is busy nurturing ideas and projects of Penn State’s faculty and students to help make ideas a reality.

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Last Updated November 06, 2014