From Novelty to Advanced Research
“This gives me experience in the animation software I will use one day. I never thought about applying my major this way, but now that I’ve seen this is an option, I might continue on this track.”
— Stephanie Huang
By Tim Peeler | PDF Version
At Makerspace, the well-appointed, technologically advanced common room on the fourth floor of NC State’s Hunt Library, advanced printing, scanning and cutting technologies are readily accessible to any member of the campus community.
It’s a place where dreams, and an occasional daydream, come true. That’s why it has become one of the most popular places in the world-renowned Hunt, which may explain why the NCSU Libraries will open a space that’s similar — but twice as large — at D.H. Hill Library in the spring of 2015.
The people who run Makerspace helped recent graduates Austin Carpenter and Jonathan Gregory develop a portable three-dimensional scanner with a rotating platform and three tower scanners for their senior design project.
One of the first things they printed, in conjunction with the fifth-annual Maker Faire this summer at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, was a figurine of Chancellor Randy Woodson. Why exactly did they do this, except for the purpose of creating the nation’s first chancellor action figure?
Because they could.
“Ten years ago, doing something like [advanced scanning and 3-D printing] wasn’t really a thing,” Carpenter says. “So it’s just really exciting to be on the cutting edge of technology.”
That’s the thing about the emerging technology in the 3-D printing world: With such a low commitment of resources involved, why not find out what’s possible? There are practical applications just waiting to be discovered, some of which are ready to hit the market at inkjet speed. How about an on-demand spare part for an aircraft carrier, printed onboard in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Or a life-sized, fully integrated human skeleton? Or a scale model of a dinosaur found in deepest Mongolia?
Emerging 3-D technology makes all these things possible — and more. For instance, a Belgian-based producer of 3-D technology and software recently scanned and printed a perfectly proportioned replica of Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamun for a five-year tour of the United States, along with artifacts from the boy king’s actual tomb.
NC State alum Aly Khalifa, founder of Raleigh’s Gamil Design and Designbox and the multifaceted SPARKcon, recently introduced his Lyf (Love Your Footprint) Shoes to Sustainable Brands conferences in San Diego and London. His innovative footwear — made of recycled cork and plastics without using environmentally damaging glue or heat — is custom-designed with 3-D scanners and manufactured with the assistance of a $2,000 3-D printer, cutting out the costly production of prototype molds that can cost up to a quarter of a million dollars.
He likes to think of the Lyf Shoes model as the first “digital cobbler.” He knows these innovations wouldn’t be possible without the use of 3-D scanning and printing technology.
“It allows us to create a totally different business model,” says Khalifa, from his offices in downtown Raleigh. “It’s a complete game changer.”
At NC State, there is significant science attached to this once-novel idea in the field of additive manufacturing. In Daniels Hall, in the heart of campus, industrial and systems engineering professor Russell King runs the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics (CAMAL), where desktop and industrial-size printers spit out objects in cobalt chromium, titanium, stainless steel and plastic.
It’s a whole new form of publishing in a building named for Josephus Daniels, the longtime Raleigh newspaper publisher and charter member of the Watauga Club.
CAMAL co-director Ola Harrysson has been doing such work for more than a decade, especially in medical applications for the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine. He printed out his first artificial orthopedic leg for a cat shortly after he arrived in 2002.
The advances in 3-D printing since then are breathtaking, crossing the boundaries between disciplines, universities and even species.
Harrysson is currently working with UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine associate professor Austin Rose to develop printed plastic bones that will enable doctors to do preoperative simulation — a surgical scrimmage of sorts — for difficult ear surgeries such as cochlear implantation. In the past, those simulations have been done on well-worn cadaver bones.
Harrysson, Rose and NC State graduate student Caroline Webster have been working with a team of engineers and physicians to develop near-perfect replicas of those same bones for both adult and pediatric surgeries, all produced on a 3-D printer.
“It’s intricate and time-consuming work,” Harrysson says. “You need input from the engineering side and the medical side to validate the model.”
For now the models are used for practice surgeries in doctors’ surgical training. Developing replica bones for surgeries on infants is critically important because pediatric cadaver bones are rarely available for simulation.
“We’ve never had this kind of ability to teach and assess our residents,” Rose says. “Before, they just had to get that experience in surgery. The ability for our residents to practice preoperatively on a pediatric or otherwise challenging patient is a huge accomplishment. We can now get a scan, have the model printed out and gain valuable surgical experience before we ever touch the patient.”
Webster, a native of Orlando who came to Raleigh from Mocksville, North Carolina, began working in Harrysson’s lab during her sophomore year as a biomedical engineering student because “students here are allowed to do things and make things that make a difference,” she says.
She has since become an expert in integrating MRI and CT scans with digital software called Mimics to map important nerves, the carotid artery, the sigmoid sinus and every variation in and around the delicate temporal bone that a surgical student may encounter during implant surgery. She’s also learned to understand and translate the languages of both medicine and engineering.
The work done in Harrysson’s lab spans multiple disciplines. In fact, members of the group spent the summer presenting their findings at conferences: Webster at a medical software conference in Chicago and an engineering conference in Austin, Texas; Rose at medical conferences in Las Vegas and Israel; and Harrysson at a medical advance digital conference in Beijing, China.
Medical printing could be the next significant innovation coming from the emerging field. NC State engineers have helped develop a printed cast that conforms perfectly to a patient’s broken limb and that delivers ultrasound waves to stimulate healing.
Harrysson has high hopes for the field’s not-too-distant future, including the ability to print with living cells. Though he doesn’t expect someone to be able to hit “Ctrl P — kidney” anytime soon, he’s working with medical doctors at Wake Forest University to replicate bladders, heart valves and other organs. More immediately, he’s developing ways to print small samples of living tissues that can be used to test screening drugs.
“These are tissues that previously you had to get from humans or animals,” Harrysson says. “You wouldn’t have to print the whole kidney; just a small piece of it. Then you give it the disease and try screening drugs on it. That could be even more beneficial than a fully printed kidney. It will help develop drugs.”
While others may be peering into the future with their 3-D printing capabilities, paleontologist Lindsay Zanno is using 3-D scanning and printing, gaming technology and design software to help turn the ancient bones and bone fragments she has found in the field into full models of newly discovered species of dinosaurs.
We are experimenting with some nifty programs that will allow us to take two bones and compare them in 3-D space,” says Zanno, director of the Paleontology and Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Sciences. “We can turn that into quantitative data, and in turn, we can use that to understand how bones differ between species in a way we couldn’t before.”
She has a new handheld scanner that her interns can use in the lab or in the field to get high-quality scans she can use to print full-scale and scaled-down models of bones and fragments. She recently took the handheld scanner on a research trip to Mongolia.
“I have all kinds of 3-D models we brought back from that,” says Zanno, who is also on NC State’s College of Sciences faculty. “Right now, we’re concentrating on building a database. Once we have a big enough database, that’s information we can share without having to go into the field or to the museums where collections are housed. A huge amount of the money that we need for the science of paleontology is for traveling to other exhibits and museums. This cuts down on that and allows us to collaborate more and share more. That is huge for us.”
Zanno envisions a day when she can excavate and clean bones but skip the time-consuming process of fully prepping her findings. She’ll be able to get intricate CT scans of the bones and turn those scans into printed models.
“That would change everything we do,” Zanno says. “It would be phenomenal. That’s on the horizon, and we are trying to be a leader in developing that technology.”
Of course, when a new dinosaur is discovered — like Siats meekerorum, a 98-million-year-old carnivore Zanno unveiled last November — everyone wants to see a model of what it might have looked like. Zanno also uses digital technology, along with help from students in NC State’s College of Design, to figure that out.
Undergraduate design student Stephanie Huang of Cary, North Carolina, came to NC State to learn computer animation. She took a job in Zanno’s lab that allows her to develop her animation skills by creating digital models of reptiles.
“This gives me experience in the animation software I will use one day,” Huang says. “I never thought about applying my major this way, but now that I’ve seen this is an option, I might continue on this track.”
Zanno is excited about how 3-D scanning and printing technologies will help her dig into the past. Could she print out a full-sized version of her dinosaur? Sure, if she wanted to; she’s more excited, however, about the ability to print a smaller-scale version of it.
“Before, if we wanted to do a model of a dinosaur, we could only do one size,” she says. “The only way to make a model was to hire an artist to hand-sculpt everything. Then you would have to cast those bones to complete a model.
“With digital scanning and the data we have, we can print a model of any size we want. We can make all sizes for all purposes. 3-D printing makes that very simple. That helps speed up the whole process of paleontology, which can sometimes be arduously long.”
At NC State, 3-D printing is one more tool that students, faculty and staff are using to turn ideas into reality.