What do a car, life-size castle and human skull have in common? They’re all objects that have been created by 3-D printers.
Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is the process of creating three-dimensional objects from a digital file, according to 3Dprinting.com. The 3-D object is created by layering material to produce a solid item.
So, what does all of this really mean? 3-D printing creates objects by molding plastic into products we can use. 3-D printing is used for a number of projects, including making braces to straighten teeth or new limbs for patients in need.
The doctors in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC) are no strangers to 3-D printing for patient needs. Virtual Surgical Planning (VSP) — the use of 3-D printed models to guide surgery — is becoming increasingly popular at LUMC, especially since Dr. Bernardino Mendez, chief resident in the Department of Surgery, was awarded a $20,000 grant by Trinity Health to purchase an in-office 3-D printer on Feb. 26, 2016.
Before receiving the grant, LUMC doctors relied on the Harold Washington Library for 3-D printing. Printing at the public library costs anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000, Mendez said, and it can take two to three weeks for the object to be sent to LUMC.
LUMC expects have an in-office printer by summer 2016, according to Mendez. By printing from an in-office printer, the cost should decrease to about $25 and the time it takes to print an object will be reduced to about 14 hours, he said.
One specific example of this is when Dr. Mendez performed surgery on a child with congenital skull defects, which is caused by abnormal growth of the head and facial bones, according to Merck Manual.
“We did a CT scan and converted that into a 3-D CT scan, which was then sent to the printer to create a full-sized skull,” said Mendez. “We brought it back to the hospital to educate the family [of the child] and to plan the surgery.”
By doing this, Mendez said he was able to measure the dimensions to see how much of a bone graft the surgeons would have to do to cover the defect. Mendez also brought the printed skull into the surgery after sterilizing it to use as a reference.
“We believe that by making [3-D printing] more affordable and convenient, it will allow this technology to flourish,” Mendez said.
The research done by Mendez and his mentor, Dr. Parit Patel, associate professor in the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery, has proved to have more advantages than just cost efficiency.
“[3-D printing] has many advantages in making surgery more precise and efficient,” Mendez said. “VSP is known to reduce operative times and blood loss because you have a more planned procedure.”
3-D printing is becoming increasingly popular in the medical field, and Mendez said it will continue to grow.
“Long-term, 3-D printing is not only going to be used for VSP, but also used to make custom implants to be used in patients,” Mendez said. “[3-D printing will] also be used to create tissue — real human tissue — that will be compatible with transplantation.”
Mendez emphasized that those are long-term initiatives, but he remains hopeful for the future of 3-D printing.
3-D printing is not only popular in the medical field, but also in the classroom. Professor Jonathan Durston teaches a computer science course at Loyola called Physical Design & Fabrication.
In this course, students learn problem-solving through design. The computer science department bought a 3-D printer specifically for this class.
“Students in this course design a device that will solve a problem,” said Durston.
This semester, students are designing objects such as storage bins for desks and bathrooms and chair attachments that reduce the chance of falling out of a seat.
Objects of virtually any shape or geometry can be created with a 3-D printer, according to a lecture slideshow Durston shared with The Phoenix.
While traditional printers are less exciting, they are certainly cheaper. These printers typically cost no more than $200, while the FlashForge Creator 3-D printers that Loyola has cost about $850, according to Durston.
Students in Durston’s class learn how to use 3-D modeling software to design 3-D files that are sent to the printer and printed. Computer science students can access these printers in Loyola Hall with keycards, and they can connect their personal laptops to the printers with a USB Cable to print directly from their laptops.
lutech, a technology club at Loyola, also has a 3-D printer in its office that belongs to professor George Thiruvathukal. Since the club is more software-oriented, senior Salomon Smeke said lutech doesn’t use it very often, other than to make phone cases, puzzles and the occasional bunny.
“Just because I can’t find a use for it for my own stuff doesn’t mean somebody else wouldn’t be able to,” Smeke said. “It’s incredibly flexible. I don’t particularly need a regular printer, but I’m sure it is invaluable for many other students.”
Smeke said the printer is not hard to use but requires those who wish to draft their own projects to learn programs such as Google SketchUp or AutoCAD.
lutech’s printer cost about $6,000, but the prices are becoming less expensive, Smeke said. Smeke said he’s seen some printers as low as $300, but a good one costs about $2,000 to $3,000.
“It’s a giant glue gun,” Smeke said. “This is the most exciting thing in the world. If you’ve ever used a glue gun, it has a stick of glue and you push it through an extruder and you can essentially paint with it. This is a machine that does that incredibly precisely and just the precision that goes into the movements of the machine is just something of awe … It’s just a very exciting piece of technology.”
Erin Kelly contributed to this article.