Digital Discovery: the hardware

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

It appeared on the cover of Wired magazine last October, billed as “This Machine Will Change the World.” By April, a unit was sitting on a table in the Hesburgh Library’s Fishbowl, fashioning a readily recognizable, 6-inch-tall replica of the Father Sorin statue from a spool of sea-green thermoplastic thread that looked like it might have been pulled from a weed-whacker.

That was just for fun. You should see the high-resolution rabbit skull the MakerBot Replicator 2 can “print” from an X-ray CT scan.

3D printers are nothing new at research universities, notes Paul Turner, manager of academic technologies in Notre Dame’s Office of Information Technology. What’s new is the price: The demo unit that Turner’s staff wheeled over to the library and back from its home in the basement of DeBartolo Hall retails at about $2,200. Equipment that recently cost tens of thousands of dollars is suddenly affordable.

The Replicator 2’s release in September 2012 made it the Year of the 3D Printer for Turner’s group. “When we research a new technology, it’s our job to figure out what it is, who on campus might use it and its potential for teaching or learning applications,” he says.

Who might use it? One answer: Anyone who needs an inexpensive prototype of a three-dimensional model. So far the most interesting applications at Notre Dame have emerged in biology, chemical engineering and art, but the creative thinking around campus has just begun.

As Wired and others reported in April, the idea to “print” skeletons from X-ray CT scans originated with Notre Dame engineering student Evan Doney. Working in the biological imaging lab of Professor W. Matthew Leevy, Doney and Penn High School senior Tony Van Avermaete produced a highly detailed rat skeleton in white plastic along with a removable set of colored lungs. With the assistance of fellow ND student Lauren Krumdick, the group published their work in the Journal of Visualized Experiments.

During a routine medical check-up, Leevy and his ear, nose and throat doctor discussed the possible use of 3D printing to produce physical models from patient data that could better inform surgeons before a procedure. That led to a collaboration which is just warming up this summer. Leevy also envisions the inexpensive mass production of high-resolution replicas of human parts for anatomy students.

Meanwhile, chemical engineering Professor Paul McGinn is researching ways to expand the benefits of low-cost printing into the art world by adapting one of the Replicator 2’s competitors to dispense ceramic mixtures, a development that would usher the technology into many budget-restricted art studios. McGinn’s team, which includes ND professor of ceramics Bill Kremer, is tracking similar efforts in such places as Belgium, Australia, Romania and Israel, in media ranging from cement to chocolate.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.