New 3D printing technologies spark synergies across campus

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(Illustration by Patrick Lynch)

From creating leaves for natural history dioramas, to creating racing car parts for inter-collegiate competitions, 3D printing is being used for a host of innovative projects across the Yale community.

“One of the reasons 3D printing in particular has become so popular is because of advances both in software and in hardware,” said Joseph Zinter, research scientist and assistant director of the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design.

“In software it has become tremendously easier now to draw in three dimensions,” he noted. “There are a number of freely available software packages that can be downloaded; there are 3D scanning applications that can be downloaded to an iPhone or other smart device; and now there are tens of thousands of 3D objects that can be downloaded from the Internet. On the hardware side things are becoming more robust, the resolution is increasing, and the cost is decreasing almost daily, so now you can have a 3D printer in your home for about $500.”

Testing students’ designs

“3D printers are allowing our students to iterate their designs very rapidly,” said Zinter. “They can print to a 3D printer and quickly see if their design intensions are realized, and, if not, they can rapidly make alterations to that design. 3D printers also allow students to create complex forms that their hands don’t yet have the skills to create with traditional tools. 3D printers have no problems with complex and organic geometries.

“We’re also using 3D printers to visualize complex data in novel ways,” he notes. “We’ve done work with Yale’s medical and biomedical communities to visualize complex anatomic structures, everything from printing folded protein molecules to printing human knees.”

(Watch the related video below or online.)

Medical education and planning

Mark Michalski, a resident in Diagnostic Radiology’s Holman research program, has worked with the CEID to develop 3D models derived from diagnostic imaging techniques like computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“There are at least two ways that we can use 3D printing technology, for education and preoperative planning,” said Michalski. “It’s sometimes difficult to communication subtle three-dimensional issues to other clinicians or patients. For example, it’s often tough for patients to understand radiologic images, but if I can present the patient with a 3D model the situation becomes much more meaningful. It’s out of the screen; it’s tangible; it’s something that patients can touch to better understand their condition and treatment plans. 3D models are also valuable for surgeons in planning surgical approaches for complex operations, and in planning and designing prosthetics. A good model can help decrease the time spent in the operating room.”

Restoring museum exhibitions

While it may be no surprise that engineers have moved quickly to take advantage of the newly affordable 3D printers, the new modeling and fabricating possibilities have excited interest in a wide range of other disciplines across the campus.

(Watch the related video below or online.)

A chance encounter with a graphic design use of 3D printing in the Digital Media Center for the Arts (DMCA) got the Peabody Museum of Natural History chief preparator Michael Anderson interested in the possibilities of using 3D techniques to speed the process of designing and maintaining museum exhibits. Anderson approached DMCA associate director Ken Lovell about exploring the possibility of using 3D printing to help with Anderson’s work on the Peabody Museum’s famous dioramas. 

Anderson and DMCA’s Ken Lovell are now experimenting with a variety of 3D printing and forming techniques that might be useful in maintaining the Peabody Museum’s dioramas. “Mike Anderson came to us looking for a way to maintain the authenticity and physical characteristics of the diorama’s artificial leaves––particularly the thinness and translucency of natural leaves,” said Lovell.

“These are world-class dioramas,” said Anderson, “but the foreground work is 70 years old. The taxidermy mounts are cracking, the fur is fading, and we have some bug damage to a number of the bird mounts. The leaves in the dioramas continually need to be redone.”

Using the traditional, time-intensive methods it can take years to replace the foliage in a diorama, for example, which requires producing many hundreds of leaves for dozens of plant species by hand. Anderson is working with the DMCA on both 3D printing methods and ink-jet printing onto vacuformed molds to produce the many hundreds of leaves needed to restore the “Forest Margin” diorama. Although the project is still a work in progress, “I know this is where we are heading. With the 3D printing it’s going to remove a lot of the steps I need to do to get my final product. It’s very exciting,” says Anderson.

Lovell’s work with the Peabody Museum is just one of a wide range of 3D printing explorations at the DMCA. The center’s 3D printers have been used for theatrical stage design, sculpture, and even photography projects.

“The DMCA is here to pave the road for Yale community members who want to incorporate new technologies into their art practice. We help come up with a practical workflow for a new technology solution, and help accelerate the process of usefully engaging with new technologies. If a new technique requires 10 years of practical training it’s not going to be useful to most of the community — particularly students — so we try to ease the entry into new working methods by creating workflows that smooth the path of engaging with a new technology,” says Lovell.

Joseph Zinter of Yale's Center for Engineering Innovation & Design and Mark Michalski of Yale's Diagnostic Radiology department discuss the unique advantages of 3D printing for rapid design prototyping and complex 3D data visualizations in both engineering and medicine.
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