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University of Missouri

Printing a New Dimension

3-D printing at MU is sparking medical and manufacturing breakthroughs.

3-D printed objects

From a human spine to an adjustable wrench to an ABS thermoplastic roller bearing, all are samples from the MU College of Engineering’s rapid prototype laboratory. The printers use plastic or gypsum to make custom 3-D objects, which are revolutionizing medicine and manufacturing. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Fixing a severe angular limb deformity in a dog is complicated, explains Derek Fox, PhD ’04, associate professor of small animal orthopedic surgery. Numerous surgical procedures can correct the debilitating deformity, but surgeons often don’t know which will work best until they open the animal up and go through a process of elimination. The trickiest cases take as long as five hours, and with every hour under the knife comes more anesthesia, greater chance of infection and a lower chance of survival.

The 3-D printers in the MU College of Engineering’s rapid prototyping laboratory, opened in 2009, offer a better solution.

Fox doesn’t have to wait until the dog is on the operating table to create a surgical strategy. With a CT scan, he can have exact replicas of the dog’s bone made in advance and do as many practice surgeries as he needs to determine the best approach. It makes the actual surgery faster and more accurate, Fox says.

It’s one of the many ways 3-D printing is revolutionizing medicine, manufacturing and art. Need a heart ventricle to practice placing stents, an intricate model of a laser tool for retinal eye surgery or a 3-D mock-up of an architectural blueprint? The prototype lab has printed them all.

Each 3-D model is really just a pile of 2-D slices or layers, explains lab manager Mike Klote, MA ’04. Instead of ink, the lab’s five printers use plastic or gypsum to print one layer — about the thickness of a human hair — on top of another. They repeat this process every few seconds until, layer by layer, a 3-D object takes shape.

The complex machines cost $70,000 a year to maintain, which is paid for by user fees.

Fox estimates the 3-D bones allow him to cut surgery time by 25 to 50 percent. “That’s just massive,” he says.

Alex Madinger co-founded the 3-D Printing Club at Mizzou and now runs his own 3-D printing business, Foundry Front.