3-D printers turn ideas into items

2013-07-27T19:00:00Z 2013-07-29T13:13:04Z 3-D printers turn ideas into itemsVanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

Keystrokes, mouse clicks and raw materials are transforming ideas into tangible goods in a user-friendly platform via the growth of three-dimensional printer technology.

Layer by layer, the machines churn out everything from jewelry to engineering prototypes.

Doctors in Michigan created an airway splint for a baby boy. Princeton scientists created a bionic ear with the help of a 3-D printer.

But 3-D printer-developed medical advancements have not made their way to the region yet. And there is no sign of it arriving soon.

"Will Franciscan Alliance be using 3-D bioprinting technology in three, five or 10 years as part of regular medical practice? Probably not," said Jim Sparks, Franciscan's vice president for innovation.

He said there may be specific and limited areas of medicine in which tissues or implants using 3-D printing might be available for use.

"Prosthetic limb coverings made using 3-D printing could provide prosthetic limbs that cosmetically resemble the patient’s own skin tone and texture," Sparks said.

He estimated 3-D printing of dental implants or dentures could be available in less than 10 years.

"Bottom line is, this new technology has some distance to cover before it can be widely adopted, but it is an exciting new technology with high potential for eventually transforming several areas of medicine," Sparks said.

The printers are in use at the university level.

Bradley Duerstock, an associate professor of engineering practice at Purdue University in West Lafayette, is using 3-D printer technology to create tools to help a student with special needs in her lab work.

"We're using a 3-D printer to create assistive technologies for a blind student to perform cellular biology lab experiments more independently," he said. "Our current 3-D prints are tools to help her to more accurately add and remove liquids and manipulate glass cover slips from well plates more cleanly in a sterile environment, so as to prevent contamination of possible cell cultures."

Purdue is in the first phase of studying how effective the 3-D devices are, he said.

"We plan on using it much more extensively to develop other assistive technologies," Duerstock said.

The College of Engineering at Valparaiso University bought a 3-D printer for its manufacturing laboratory in 2005 to help produce some complicated parts of project prototypes, engineering professor Scott Duncan said.

"We use the printer primarily in our senior design course but also sometimes to prototype parts we are creating for research purposes," he said.

Their printer has not been used in connection with the health industry or development of medical devices, he said.

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