Health­care in­dus­try rev­o­lu­tionised by 3D print­ing

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - 3D TECHNOLOGY - By Joshua M. Pearce

The evo­lu­tion of 3D print­ing has moved quickly and it is now poised to al­ter ev­ery as­pect of our lives and health. Thou­sands of Euro­peans are en­joy­ing 3D-printed metal orthopaedic im­plants to sup­port or re­place miss­ing bones and, in the US, thou­sands more have ben­e­fited from 3D print­ing used by den­tists. Most people that need hear­ing aids have cus­tom 3D-printed de­vices com­fort­ably rest­ing in their ears now.

It is hard not to get ex­cited about the lat­est 3D-printed marvels in the world’s labs such as the 3D-printed “heart jacket”, which was suc­cess­fully used to mon­i­tor a heart of a rab­bit. Sci­en­tists used a sen­sorstud­ded sil­i­cone sheath to gauge things like con­trac­tions, tem­per­a­tures and acid lev­els across the sur­face of the rab­bit’s heart. With a lit­tle more time and ef­fort, there is po­ten­tial for a hu­man im­plant.

The 3D print­ers used for orthopaedic im­plants, hear­ing aids and heart mon­i­tors are all high-end, made by ex­pen­sive man­u­fac­tur­ing tools far re­moved from the con­sumer print­ers that have cap­tured pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. The ex­treme eco­nomic sav­ings that can be had from us­ing a per­sonal 3D printer hasn’t es­caped the no­tice of those of us who work in the sci­ences.

Sim­i­lar to the ex­ces­sive mark-ups for any­thing re­lated to health­care, sci­en­tists of­ten suf­fer from shock­ingly ex­pen­sive sci­en­tific equip­ment prices. Three-D print­ers of­fer us a so­lu­tion too.

Con­sider the colourime­ter, a sim­ple de­vice used to de­tect colour in a wide range of sci­ence ap­pli­ca­tions in­clud­ing test­ing wa­ter.

A colourime­ter is used for the chemical oxy­gen de­mand (COD) to de­tect con­tam­i­na­tion of drink­ing wa­ter. High­qual­ity colourime­ters cost more than $2000. My re­search group de­vel­oped an open source 3D-print­able colourime­ter that costs $ 50 and af­ter test­ing hun­dreds of sam­ples we showed it is equiv­a­lent in qual­ity to the mar­ket ver­sion. That is a fac­tor of 40 sav­ings on a 3D print­able that is ac­tu­ally more f lex­i­ble than the orig­i­nal.

Mar­ket-bought colourime­ters are all made for a spe­cific size of cu­vette or test tube, which are also al­ways spe­cific to the f luid hold­ers that each com­pany sells. Our de­vice can eas­ily be cus­tomised and adapted to any size of f luid holder from any com­pany. Sim­ply print out the new ver­sion and slide it into the de­vice for a few more cents of plas­tic.

Next, we were look­ing for an in­ex­pen­sive and ac­cu­rate way to mea­sure the tur­bid­ity (or cloudiness) of drink­ing wa­ter in the de­vel­op­ing world.

Nephalome­ters, which are used to mea­sure tur­bid­ity again cost more than $2000 – which is not an op­tion for wide­spread test­ing for the more than bil­lion people who suf­fer from ex­treme poverty and lack of ac­cess to safe drink­ing wa­ter.

So we made the col­orime­ter por­ta­ble and added an­other LED and sen­sor so we now have a nephalome­ter plus colourime­ter de­vice with lab-grade ac­cu­racy for un­der $100.

Now our de­vice can be used by any­one to make the next even more so­phis­ti­cated de­vice. Our colourime­ter uses an Arduino, which is an open source mi­cro-con­troller that en­ables any­one with an in­ter­est to eas­ily hack it and use it for their projects.

We de­vel­oped the open source nephalome­ter+colourime­ter eas­ily and quickly, be­cause oth­ers had al­ready de­vel­oped the sen­sor and ba­sic soft­ware cou­pled to the Arduino. This is the power of open source.

Just like the in­cred­i­ble rate of in­no­va­tion wit­nessed in open source soft­ware, the con­cept of open source de­sign for 3D-print­able hard­ware is catch­ing on like wild­fire. Hun­dreds of open source 3D-print­able sci­ence and health tools have al­ready been de­vel­oped.

This is all just the be­gin­ning. Fully open source 3D print­able labs are com­ing. They will help sci­en­tists stretch their fund­ing to do more and bet­ter re­search, which will lead to faster dis­cov­er­ies and an ac­cel­er­ated rate of tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

All of which will hope­fully en­able all of us, wher­ever we are in the world, to live richer and health­ier lives.

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