Aurora, CO - Three-dimensional printing technology is being used in a University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus laboratory, said a recent news release from the university.
Due to a $600,000 capital equipment grant from the Veterans Administration, the CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus/VA Biomechatronics Development Laboratory has received a cutting-edge 3D printer: a laser metal sintering machine.
Dr. Richard Weir, an associate professor and researcher in robotic technology for arm amputees, said the fabricator will allow his research team to develop better components for prosthetic fingers, hands and arms. Weir also envisions creating a prototyping center as a resource for other university and VA researchers.
"It's a whole new way of thinking about how to make things," Weir said. "...The revolutionary aspect is to be able to do stuff that you can't using conventional technology. There is the possibility to fabricate impossible-to-machine components and to explore whether that confers advantage to the designs we're working on."
While 3D plastic printers have been available for many years, metal printing is still "a very nascent technology," Weir said. He estimates that only a couple dozen of the devices - called direct metal laser-sintering machines and built by German-based EOS e-Manufacturing Solutions - are being used in the US, mostly for biomedical and aeronautical applications.
Weir's lab has already been using a 3D plastic printer, but a metal prototyping machine dramatically expands the horizons for their prosthetic designs.
"That's what we have a need for when we're building our small hands," said Weir, whose Implantable MyoElectric Sensors work will be tested in clinical trials this spring. "We have all of these tiny parts that need to be very strong, and a lot of times steel turns out to be the best material to work in. If we want, we can change the machine's set-up, for a fee, of course, that will allow us to print in a different metal. We can print in titanium, nickel, magnesium, cobalt."
The machine uses a three-dimensional digital image to methodically laser-sinter beads of metal powder into solid metal. Most components will be built overnight in the machine, which has a door - much like a microwave oven - that allows manufacturers, or in this case, researchers, to view the progress of each iterative design.
Weir said it will take some time to learn all of the new machine's capabilities. "We will print a part, but it won't necessarily be a finished part," he said. "There's a post-finish process we have to do to clean up a part before it's usable."
The university's newly formed Bioengineering Department will begin an undergraduate program this fall that will train students to take advantage of such cutting-edge rapid prototyping equipment.