Inside UAB's 3D Superstore
By Matt Windsor
Looking for a 12th century chess piece? A custom Rubikâs cube? An exact copy of a seashell, the inside of an eyeball, a relief map of an Egyptian burial ground, or an obscure protein?
UAB computer scientist Kenneth Sloan, Ph.D., has them all in stock. If youâre searching for something elseâanything elseâhe can get it. Or, to be precise, make it. Just give him a day or two, and $20 per cubic inch.
Inside Sloanâs lab on the ground floor of Campbell Hall are five 3D printers, ranging from entry level to commercial grade. These magic machines, which recently earned a spot on the cover of Wired magazine, transform computer files into reality. Instead of ink, their âprint headsâ extrude a thin stream of superheated plastic in layers seven-thousands of an inch thick. Building layer upon layer, a 3D printer can make a nearly infinite variety of objects.
3D Print Lab with their own designs.Sloan and his students have made life-size models of Tetris pieces, intricate puzzles, and elaborate contraptions that could be produced in no other way. But these âtoysâ only offer a hint of what is possible, Sloan says. The printersâ true value is becoming clear as other UAB researchers come to the
âIt took us a long time to get to the point where someone can walk in the door with a computer file describing their object and we can deliver the part to them the next morning,â says Sloan. âBut now weâre ready to offer this service to the UAB communityââat the bargain price of $20 per cubic inch printed.
Several UAB researchers have already taken advantage of the service, producing everything from models of the inner eye to a test tube holder that will be used to train a new generation of astronauts. Read on to learn more about three fascinating collaborations.
Here's Plastic in Your Eye
Crawford Downs, Ph.D., has spent his entire career studying the optic nerve head, but he never really saw it until a few months ago. Using an ingenious system of his own design, Downs had created the first high-resolution computer model of the lamina cribrosa, a mesh-like structure at the back of the eye that allows the optic nerve axons to exit while preserving intraocular pressure. Researchers have long suspected that the lamina cribrosa plays a key role in glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in the developed world. âWe think it is a mechanical engineering problem,â Downs says. âThe eye is like a basketball, under pressure, and elevated intraocular pressure is associated with the damage to the optic nerve we see in glaucoma.â
After meeting Kenneth Sloan at a recruiting dinnerâSloanâs wife, Christine Curcio, Ph.D., is, like Downs, a researcher in the UAB Department of OphthalmologyâDowns embarked on what he calls a âbeautiful collaboration.â UABâs 3D printers reproduced an exact model of the 1.6-mm-wide lamina cribrosa â in a version eight inches in diameter.
âSomething you can hold in your hand is a powerful tool,â Downs says. âYou can pick it up, twist it around in space, viewing it from different angles. You start to understand how complicated the structure is, and that leads to this hypothesis-forming cascadeâit really is a great aid to research.â
The 3D-printed model has two other key benefits, Downs adds. âItâs great for teachingâyou can pass it around at a meeting,â he explains. âMost researchers donât understand how complicated the lamina cribrosa is because theyâve only seen it in two dimensions. The model really opens their eyes to the complexities weâre dealing with.â
The plastic lamina cribrosa also helps in fund raising, a vital component of any large research program. âYou can carry one in your briefcase when you are meeting with donors,â Downs says. âThis is science you can hold in your hand, which you canât say of most research. Itâs a powerful message to show potential donors what we are doing.â
Forensic Science in 3D
Reports that 3D printers can make working guns and bullets have law enforcement officials worried. But 3D printing is also being used to fight crime in UABâs Center for Information Assurance/Joint Forensics Research (CIA|JFR). Forensic researcher Jason Linville, Ph.D., a member of CIA|JFR and the UAB Department of Justice Sciences, recently worked with the 3D Print Lab to produce an impression of a footprint (above).
Footprint models are currently created using crime-scene photographs and plaster of Paris casting. But developing a system that can scan footprints in 3D has several advantages, Linville notes. âOnce you have footprints as digital images, you can easily compare them with one another to generate a more objective match than you could by relying on the judgment of a human analyst,â he says. âThen because you can print an impression that doesnât require handling, like a plaster cast, you can create multiple copies that are exactly the same.â
Another âhuge advantageâ with Dr. Sloanâs lab âis the ability to reverse the impression and actually print out what you think the shoe looked like,â Linville says. âThat is physical evidence that you could take to court.â
Rapid Prototyping Fuels Space Science
David Cooper hasnât visited space himself, but he has been there by proxy. As a mechanical engineer in UABâs Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE), Cooper has worked on several NASA contracts, including the UAB-designed GLACIER and Polar freezers now orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station.
A recent assignment charged him with designing a container for protein crystal growth experiments on the space station. âYou can do a lot of math regarding making things fit, but youâll never know how it will work and what it will feel like until you actually make the object,â Cooper says.
Cooper usually sends his designs as computer files to a manufacturer that shapes the device in aluminum, a process that takes several weeks, with a per-unit cost of $1,000. But he recently discovered the 3D Print Lab. For a mere $130, Sloanâs group printed a working model of the test tube tray (above). âThat first iteration was a little loose,â Cooper says. âSo I made a slight adjustment, and it worked better.â
The final version was still printed in aluminum. The material used in UABâs 3D printers is not yet cleared for spaceflight, Cooper says, âbut I think weâll get to that point soon.â Still, Cooperâs test models havenât gone to waste. They, and a few duplicates, are now in Houston, where they are being used to train the astronauts who will be doing the experiments in orbit.
âItâs very handy to have this service right down the road from us,â Cooper says. âI can just send them the file, then walk over and pick up the prototype the next day.â
Students Transform 3D Dreams into Reality
One benefit of being a student in the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences is the chance to play with advanced machines. Thatâs especially true of the 3D Print Lab, where undergraduate and graduate students step out on the cutting edge of manufacturing technology. They get to operate everything from a hobbyist-grade MakerBot, which costs roughly $1,500, to an industrial-strength Dimension Elite, which costs around $50,000 and can print objects up to 8x8x12 inches in dimension and down to seven-thousands of an inch thick.
Having access to a 3D printer is a dream come true for someone with an active imagination. âI am partial to the Rubikâs Cube [above], the obligatory sphere-within-a-sphere-within-a-sphere-within-a-sphere-within-a-sphere, and the torus knot the size of a face,â says Brooks MacBeth, an undergraduate computer science major. âThe aspects that interest me most are model design and creation.â MacBeth particularly enjoys retrieving the data through the labâs 3D scanners and manipulating it through different programs he has written. âI am currently working on one that will reproduce data on the back of the eye as a height map on the back of a sphere,â he says.
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For physics graduate student Jeffrey Montgomery, favorite pieces include a four-foot-long broadsword with the word âOccamâ inscribed in the blade (a reference to the âwell-known philosophical razor,â he explains), which demonstrates the capability of printing large pieces in smaller sections and joining them together âusing a simple chemical welding process.â He is also partial to his first creation: âa scale model of the spaceship âSerenityâ [from the movie of the same name] made from a 3D model I found online.â
Projects like these demonstrate the limitless potential of 3D printing, notes Sloan. One of his favorites: an exact recreation of a 12th century chess piece from a set his wife bought for him at the British Museum.
âThereâs no limit to what we can do,â says Sloan, rattling off other new collaborations with UAB faculty, including a fist-sized model of a protein for one researcher and a detailed relief map of an Egyptian archaeological site for another. âWhatever you can think about, we can print. Weâre very excited to share this capability with the rest of the university.â