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3D Printing for Scientific Applications: Get Started with a Practical, Hands-On Short Course

Mark Russo, Ph.D., associate director in computational genomics, and Matthew Fronheiser, Ph.D., medical imaging analyst lead, both from Bristol-Myers Squibb, have teamed up to teach a new course entitled 3D Printing for Scientific Applications at SLAS2018. They bring practical knowledge from their experiences with 3D printing and share some of the pitfalls and solutions they have discovered.

In talking about the course, Russo and Fronheiser point out “All shapes and sizes of organizations are taking advantage of 3D printing. Everyone, from major pharmaceutical companies to start-up companies, from elite academic labs to resource-limited schools in Africa.”

“3D printing has gone from an interesting curiosity to a viable tool in various segments of science and industry. Yet it’s still rare enough that few scientists have actually had a chance to get close up to the technology. SLAS felt it was time to offer a practical course on 3D printing, and Russo and Fronheiser created a course that fit that need,” said Steve Hamilton, Ph.D., SLAS director of education.

3D Printing Helps Life Sciences Researchers Make Progress

Russo says 3D printing technology significantly shortens the time between conceiving an idea to holding a physical representation of that idea in hand; and there has been a dramatic reduction in the cost of a 3D printing device to as low as a few hundred dollars. “These factors have moved custom object fabrication from the machine shop to the desktop, putting this capability into the hands of many,” Russo points out “This is especially important to researchers who need custom objects and devices to drive their work. Instead of weeks of waiting, they can have objects in hand in a matter of hours, which has a positive impact on research productivity.”

There is a large open source community around this technology and today, you can download designs online and print directly, or customize someone else’s creation to fit your needs. A recent article in SLAS Technology from experts at the National Institutes of Health provides some background on the technology, shows examples and discusses how 3D printing can save time and money in research and development laboratories.

Custom Labware

Fronheiser explains “in research, custom devices may be needed to perform a novel experiment. These can be as mundane as racks, clamps, shims or fasteners of various types. Because research is experimental, the devices necessary to carry out the work also may be new. In the past, researchers would need to design a clever workaround or accept limitations to their workflows.”

Rapid Prototyping

Bringing an engineer’s perspective, Russo explains how manufacturing novel objects used to be a time-consuming, iterative process that involved designing a prototype, consulting with an engineer, modifying the prototype and sending it to a shop for creation. Russo expands on this saying “weeks later, you might find that the design needs to be adjusted, so the process was repeated. With 3D printing, the researcher can go from concept to a physical object in a matter of hours, without needing to involve other services. When the object design needs to be optimized, the changes can be made quickly and the new object fabricated immediately. Also, 3D printed objects may be combined with traditional fabrication tools to develop novel solutions that would not be possible with either approach alone.” For more information, see “3D Printing in the Laboratory” in SLAS Technology.

Molecular Models

Fronheiser and Russo believe it’s a benefit to have a three-dimensional model in hand to facilitate discussion of new ideas. Fronheiser, having a strong medical imaging background explains, “While many of us are able to perceive three-dimensional aspects when viewing two-dimensional representations, it can be difficult to orient people who don’t do that regularly.” They have found it valuable to have a 3D printed model of a drug molecule and its biological receptor, for example, to get to a common understanding more quickly. “It can be a short cut to getting to where you want faster,” says Russo who also notes that “a company often prefers to keep models of its proprietary information in house rather than send it out to a 3D printing service.”

What Steps are Involved in Creating a 3D Printed Object?

Russo explains that there are three main steps in the 3D printing process:

  1. Create or acquire a 3D model using CAD software, scanning software, images, etc.
  2. Translate the model into suitable printer instructions using slicing software.
  3. Fabricate the object using a 3D printer with raw materials that range from thermoplastics to metals to paper to live cells.

There are multiple ways to best achieve each of these steps, and they will be covered in detail during the SLAS2018 short course. The process is similar whether you are printing at home or using a 3D printing service.

What Materials are Commonly Used in 3D Printing?

Russo explains, “by far, the most common material used is polylactic acid (PLA), a thermoplastic. The main benefits of using PLA for 3D printing is that it is easy to print with because it melts at a relatively low temperature, tends not to warp or crack when cooling and doesn’t have an offensive odor. And, it comes in many colors – even glow-in-the-dark!

Fronsheiser adds, “the second most-used material for 3D printing is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). ABS is also a thermoplastic like PLA, but it has some benefits over PLA. ABS tends to be stronger, and it is not as sticky as PLA so it flows better. PLA tends to clog your printer’s nozzle more than ABS. On the downside, ABS has a higher melting temperature, which means your printer must be able to handle these higher temperatures. ABS can warp or crack if not cooled sufficiently slowly and because it is not as sticky as PLA, it doesn’t adhere to the printer’s bed as well as PLA, which can cause printing problems. Finally, ABS is oil- based and can release an offensive odor when melted.”

Examples of different materials are explained and compared in the short course, but PLA is used for the demonstration prints.

What are the Challenges to Start Printing in 3D?

There is a lot of excitement about this technology and Fronheiser says that he “sees no inherent barrier preventing anyone from doing this, but there is a learning curve. Knowing what you are getting into as you bring this new technology into a lab to create solutions will help to set expectations.” Fronheiser recommends starting small and working up from there. 

As is often the case with new technologies that gain popularity quickly, the hype occasionally overshoots reality. Both Russo and Fronheiser emphasize that it is important to understand when it cannot or should not be used and will address this in detail in the short course.

Russo does not see cost, space or expertise as problems provided a person is willing to learn. He says “that the major challenges for someone new to this are in designing models and learning the 3D model software. The additive approach to fabrication with 3D printing, with one layer of material added at a time, has limitations. For instance, when an object has an overhang of some sort, there may be no lower layer upon which to deposit the upper layers. This can be solved with supports printed using a second dissolvable material, but this makes the process much more complex. Not all designs may be printed, and not all materials are available to be printed.”

Fronheiser cautions that there are special challenges for each application area. Printed parts are not always ready to be used when they emerge from the printer and certain post-processing steps add to the complexity of fabrication.

Russo reflects that despite the large volume of online information available, “often there is no amount of reading that will prepare you for the practical aspects of actually printing an object. The goal of the course is to provide as much information as possible to help people get started quickly.” There will be at least one 3D printer available to demonstrate the printing process live.

Future Directions

Because 3D printing has become so accessible and the cost of printers has declined dramatically in recent years, Russo and Fronheiser foresee 3D printers showing up in many unexpected places.

Bioprinting is an active area of research around techniques for depositing 3D cellular structures that include extrusion, laser-induced forward transfer and droplet-based ejection. SLAS Technology published a Special Issue on Advancing Scientific Innovation with Acoustic Droplet Ejection. Droplet-based 3D printing for living cells is of particular interest according to a recent article in Nature.

Russo explains that “the core problem yet to be solved is to find a way to keep the various cell types in a 3D arrangement until they have time to grow and fuse into mature biologically active tissues. Simple deposition of cells results in a useless disorganized pile.”

Longer term, Russo and Fronheiser are looking forward to advances in 3D printing that will help personalize healthcare. Fronheiser expects that “customized braces, prosthetics, stents, dental implants, vessels and ultimately, organs, have the potential to significantly improve our ability to provide care that is truly customized to the needs of each individual.”

SLAS2018 Short Course: 3D Printing for Scientific Applications

Russo and Fronheiser’s short course is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, at SLAS2018 in San Diego, CA. Register today; space is limited and will be assigned on a first come, first served basis.


Editor’s Note: Images used in the banner were adapted from 3D models in the National Institutes of Health 3D Print Exchange.

September 19, 2017