By Erin Fincher
If you like to keep up with the latest technology news, you probably know something about three-dimensional (3D) printing. For those unfamiliar with the term, 3D printing is the process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model by building up layer upon layer of material. Three-dimensional printing is one of the latest trends in manufacturing; some claim it will revolutionize the way we make, create, and buy goods.
Innovators around the world are revealing new applications of this “additive manufacturing” technology. Three-dimensional printers have been used to make jewelry, build a house, and even make a pizza. But what can 3D printing offer to the scientific community at the NICHD and how can fellows access it?
The NIH 3D Print Exchange (3DPX), a collaborative project among several NIH institutes, is an invaluable tool for utilizing 3D printing technology in scientific research. In one simple website, 3DPX allows researchers to share and access biomedical three-dimensional files ready for printing. The 3DPX website also hosts a novel, web-based tool that allows users to create high-quality 3D printable models in minutes, a process that would normally take hours.
Darrell Hurt, 3DPX project lead and computational biologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has been producing 3D printed protein structures for years. “Every time I take one of these things and give them to a researcher, they learn something from it,” Darrell says. “And the researcher who’s been using a computer model of this for fifteen years learns something as soon as they put their hands on the real tangible model. Imagine how impactful it might be for someone who’s just starting out.”
Custom 3D printed labware has the potential to save labs time and money. In Dr. Burgess’s lab here at the NICHD, 3D printing has been used to create custom parts to make zebrafish research easier and more efficient. Using 3D printing, Dr. Tohei Yokogawa, a postdoctoral fellow in the Burgess lab, generated several new water flow chambers to monitor fish behavior in variable environments. “[The] biggest benefit of 3D printing for me is its speed of making prototypes,” Dr. Yokogawa said. “The whole process of going from anidea in your mind to design in 3D software to 3D printing to testing the prototype is unbelievably fast compared to factory orders.”
Three-dimensional printing also has applications in a clinical setting. Across the street at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Dr. Gerry Grant runs the 3D Medical Applications Center (3DMAC). Every day, the 3D printers at 3DMAC produce medical models for surgical planning, prostheses, and even custom implants. Three-dimensional printed models can be so much more than just trinkets and paperweights.
To learn more about how 3D printing may benefit you and your research, visit the NIH 3D Print Exchange website (http://3dprint.nih.gov/). There you can find a collection of bioscientifically relevant 3D models available to download and print, share your own models, or create a model from your own data.
Top image: 3D render of eIF1 protein
Bottom image: 3D print of Golgi structure