Dec 16, 2014 | By Alec

It's no secret that 3D printing technology is currently being used to revolutionize the medical world. We're already seeing a number of ground-breaking prostheses being made, that are helping people with rare or even unique disabilities, but over the next few years various biomedical 3D printing solutions (even 3D printed organs!) can be expected to appear.

But did you know you can already print some very accurate medical replicas on your very own desktop 3D printer? This is true for just about any FDM 3D printer that can work with G-code (which most can). For Luis Ibáñez, a software engineer at Google, has just unveiled a very fun medical project that is personalized to suit your very own body: 3D printing your own CT scans.

In a nutshell, this project will help you to take your very own CT scan (which just about everyone with a bit of a hospital history will have) and turn that into a 3D printed replica made with your own printer. Just about any part of your body can be recreated this way, dependant on the data present in your CT scan. Ever broken your arm in a weird way that doctors wanted to scan? Did any trouble with your head ever necessitate a CT scan? Whatever those doctors have done, you can relatively simply alter that CT data and turn it into an STL file.

As you might've realized, this all revolves around the CT scans made in the hospital, as the commercial technology to just quickly scan your brain isn't exactly affordable yet. Fortunately, any CT scan made in hospitals is probably your own property – depending on where you live. In the US it is legally yours, and your health care provider is legally required to hand you a copy within 30 days as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. So ask your doctor if 3D printing your own CT scans for fun is right for you.

Just make sure it's given to you as a digital file (in the US that is generally delivered in DICOM format), rather than a boring 2D printout. CT scans, interestingly enough, are comparable to X-rays, but instead consist of lots and lots of scans of slices of your body or limb, and can be merged together to form highly accurate 3D shapes. While turning those files into 3D printable STL files that actually resemble the scanned part is a bit of work, Luis Ibáñez wrote a detailed tutorial to help you achieve that.

In a nutshell, it requires image processing software to generate a 3D mesh that can actually be saved as a workable STL. Luis relies on one of the most commonly used open source software applications for medical processing, 3D Slicer(not Slic3r, the go-to software for 3D printing projects). This comes with an 'image segmentation' function that can be used to generate a mesh, though this can be a bit of a trial-and-error process as you need to do most of the work manually. If you go to the next stage and find it looks nothing like what you had in mind, try tuning the parameters.

Once successful, generate a mesh using the software's Model Maker module. This can then be saved a an STL file, though it probably needs a bit of cleaning before it can actually be printed as well. Therefore be sure to check your design in Meshlab and, if need be, clean it using the equally open-source visualization software ParaView by following Luis's carefully explained steps.

If everything went well, you're now in possession of a regular STL file that can be given shape using the normal steps in RepetierHost and Slic3r to generate 3D printable G-code. Luis printed his femur bone and pelvis scan twice, once using a Printrbot Simple (in 0.3 mm layers of PLA, with supports) and again with a Makerbot Replicator 2X (ABS, with supports).

Some post-printing, and there you have it: a truly unique (unless you have a twin) 3D printed replica of your own body part. Isn't the concept just amazing? While it might not have many medical applications, it's a very cool piece doubtlessly unlike anything you've ever printed before. While Hamlet was forced to talk to the skull of a dead court yester, you can use your own!

Now, if you don't have access to your own CT scan but would still like to try your hand at medical 3D printing, you can also find downloadable and 3D printable files here in Luis's archive of actual bone scans, including the femur bone and pelvis that he used for his prints. Luis also invites everyone to upload their own printable files for others to use.

Posted in 3D Printer Applications


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