Print Shop

Inside UAB's 3D Superstore

By Matt Windsor


Looking for a 12th century chess piece? A custom Rubik’s cube? An exact copy of a seashell, the inside of an eyeball, a relief map of an Egyptian burial ground, or an obscure protein?

0413 3d1A scanner in the UAB 3D Print Lab gathers the data needed to turn virtually anything into a printable object. See more examples in this slideshow. UAB computer scientist Kenneth Sloan, Ph.D., has them all in stock. If you’re searching for something else—anything else—he can get it. Or, to be precise, make it. Just give him a day or two, and $20 per cubic inch.

Inside Sloan’s 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 “print heads” 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.

0413 3d2The hobbyist-level MakerBot (above) is one of five 3D printers in the lab, which include several commercial-grade devices. The spool at top left holds the plastic, which is heated and deposited in ultra-thin slices to form objects.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 “toys” only offer a hint of what is possible, Sloan says. The printers’ true value is becoming clear as other UAB researchers come to the 3D Print Lab with their own designs.

“It 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,” says Sloan. “But now we’re ready to offer this service to the UAB community”—at 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.

Next: How a plastic eye helps fight glaucoma, raises funds

Here's Plastic in Your Eye

p2-1-eyeThe lamina cribrosa, which seals the exit of the optic nerve from the eye, could be a key to the mystery of glaucoma. UAB ophthalmology researcher Crawford Downs designed a device that created the first high-res computer rendering of the tiny structure. Downs was able to turn that image into reality at the 3D Print Lab.

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. “We think it is a mechanical engineering problem,” Downs says. “The eye is like a basketball, under pressure, and elevated intraocular pressure is associated with the damage to the optic nerve we see in glaucoma.”

After meeting Kenneth Sloan at a recruiting dinner—Sloan’s wife, Christine Curcio, Ph.D., is, like Downs, a researcher in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology—Downs embarked on what he calls a “beautiful collaboration.” UAB’s 3D printers reproduced an exact model of the 1.6-mm-wide lamina cribrosa — in a version eight inches in diameter.

“Something you can hold in your hand is a powerful tool,” Downs says. “You 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 cascade—it really is a great aid to research.”

0413 3d5The 8-inch printed version of the 1.6-mm lamina cribrosa has several uses, Downs says. It is an ideal research and teaching tool; it has also proven helpful in fund raising.The 3D-printed model has two other key benefits, Downs adds. “It’s great for teaching—you can pass it around at a meeting,” he explains. “Most researchers don’t understand how complicated the lamina cribrosa is because they’ve only seen it in two dimensions. The model really opens their eyes to the complexities we’re dealing with.”

The plastic lamina cribrosa also helps in fund raising, a vital component of any large research program. “You can carry one in your briefcase when you are meeting with donors,” Downs says. “This is science you can hold in your hand, which you can’t say of most research. It’s a powerful message to show potential donors what we are doing.”

Next: 3D printers fight crime

Forensic Science in 3D

p3-1-footprint3D printers could soon be a crime-solving tool, creating accurate models of footprints—and the shoes that made those prints.

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 UAB’s 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. “Once 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,” he says. “Then because you can print an impression that doesn’t require handling, like a plaster cast, you can create multiple copies that are exactly the same.”

Another “huge advantage” with Dr. Sloan’s lab “is the ability to reverse the impression and actually print out what you think the shoe looked like,” Linville says. “That is physical evidence that you could take to court.”

Next: 3D printing heads for the stars

Rapid Prototyping Fuels Space Science

p4-1-cbse-designUAB mechanical engineer Brian Cooper went through two 3D-printed iterations of this container for protein crystal growth experiments in space. The final version was shaped in aluminum, but the prototypes found new life as training devices for astronaut scientists.

David Cooper hasn’t visited space himself, but he has been there by proxy. As a mechanical engineer in UAB’s 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. “You can do a lot of math regarding making things fit, but you’ll never know how it will work and what it will feel like until you actually make the object,” 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, Sloan’s group printed a working model of the test tube tray (above). “That first iteration was a little loose,” Cooper says. “So I made a slight adjustment, and it worked better.”

The final version was still printed in aluminum. The material used in UAB’s 3D printers is not yet cleared for spaceflight, Cooper says, “but I think we’ll get to that point soon.” Still, Cooper’s test models haven’t 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.

“It’s very handy to have this service right down the road from us,” Cooper says. “I can just send them the file, then walk over and pick up the prototype the next day.”

Next: Toys with a purpose

Students Transform 3D Dreams into Reality

p5-1-rubikscubeCustom Rubik's Cubes are just one of the imaginative objects printed by students in the 3D Print Lab. For more examples, see the slideshow below.

One benefit of being a student in the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences is the chance to play with advanced machines. That’s 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. “I am partial to the Rubik’s 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,” says Brooks MacBeth, an undergraduate computer science major. “The aspects that interest me most are model design and creation.” MacBeth particularly enjoys retrieving the data through the lab’s 3D scanners and manipulating it through different programs he has written. “I 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,” he says.

(Story continues beneath the slideshow.)


For physics graduate student Jeffrey Montgomery, favorite pieces include a four-foot-long broadsword with the word “Occam” inscribed in the blade (a reference to the “well-known philosophical razor,” he explains), which demonstrates the capability of printing large pieces in smaller sections and joining them together “using a simple chemical welding process.” He is also partial to his first creation: “a scale model of the spaceship ‘Serenity’ [from the movie of the same name] made from a 3D model I found online.”

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.

“There’s no limit to what we can do,” 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. “Whatever you can think about, we can print. We’re very excited to share this capability with the rest of the university.”

More Information

UAB 3D Print Lab

Department of Computer and Information Sciences

Apply to UAB


UAB helped transform Birmingham into a nexus of medicine, business, research and development, and our partnership is cemented by a shared vision for better education, health and quality of life and a common belief we can establish Alabama as a progressive economic center that can change the world.

Our intellectual achievements are essential to that. The business of technology-transfer — moving basic research discoveries to the marketplace — contributes tens of millions of dollars to the state economy through product licensing and spin-off companies. And the business incubator Innovation Depot has helped its 92 tenant companies reach $1.4 billion sales during the past five years.

In short, our total annual impact is about $5 billion. That breaks down to a return of more than $20 in jobs and economic development for every dollar Alabama invests in UAB.

Read more about this bold, collaborative culture that strives to be first, best and one-of-a-kind.

  • Flow of Ideas

    Can graphic design save a river—and a region? UAB students are using their skills for good as part of projects to increase ecotourism around the state. 

  • Print Shop

    You never know what UAB researchers will carry around campus these days—pieces of a giant eyeball, a crime-scene footprint, or perhaps a tool for the space station. Each one came from UAB's 3D Print Lab, where machines use superheated plastic to transform digital designs into touchable, portable objects.

  • Network News

    Social media offers a great way for friends to keep in touch. Now universities are tapping into the network to find alumni with inDegree, a service developed by entrepreneurs in UAB's School of Business.

  • Good Company

    How does a simple idea evolve into the next Facebook or Amazon? It usually involves the help of someone like Matt Wright, a 2001 UAB business graduate who helps local entrepreneurs launch groundbreaking new companies.