Aug 18, 2015 | By Alec

3D printing technology has already proven itself to be a very useful option for developing arm and hand prostheses for us humans, but we are very happy to see that animals are also increasingly benefiting from it. Remember German dog Luisa? While a few birds have also received 3D printed implants or prostheses already, one White Pelican in the Dalian Forest Zoo in China has just become the first animal to be saved by 3D printing technology in China, after its beak was seriously injured in a courtship fight with other pelicans.

The pelican in question is a four or five-year-old male, part of a flock of twelve White Pelicans in the Dalian Forest Zoo near Beijing. It’s the only zoo in Northeast China to house pelicans. In May of this year, the zoo’s staff discovered the injury during a routine check. ‘The Pelican was very alert and maintained a distance with the staff. Through repeated observations, the staff finally determined what happened to the pelican’s beak,’ group leader at the Dalian Forest Zoo Liu Wenliang said, ‘A third of the pelican's beak, in the region near the face, was seriously injured. Although not completely shattered, the upper beak was hanging by a thread and almost fell out whenever the bird opened or closed its mouth.’

This broken beak is a very serious condition, as it effectively means the bird is unable to hunt and eat, while its fellow birds ostracize him. As Liu Wenliang argued, it probably happened during a courtship fight or while mating, during which the bird's beak got stuck in bushes or stones and caused damage. ‘The beak is very important to the pelican. A male pelican with a broken beak basically loses the necessary mating conditions, so other pelicans will bully it.’ In the wild, a bird like this would just eventually die. To prevent that from happening, the Zoo’s officials looked into various medical options before finally ending up with 3D printing.

To begin with, the hospital officials separated the bird from the rest of the flock. Luring it with fish as bait, they isolated it at one side of the Lake, where they manually feed it and administer anti-inflammatory medication. On May 20, Liu Xuesen, a veterinary physician of the Dalian Forest Zoo and staff members turned towards the most logical option: fixing the beak with a simple aluminum foil board to hold the beak in place. This surgery was initially successful. ‘We observed the bird for a week, which was doing well, then put it back into the Lake, where it went back to other Pelicans and successfully returned to the group,’ they reveal. ‘But by June 23, we found that part of aluminum foil fixture was about to come loose, so we captured the pelican for a second operation.’

Two days later, they therefore scheduled a more permanent surgery. This time, they drilled holed into the edges of the beak and used wire to hold the aluminum fixture in place. However, within days (by August 4), the foil was already broken. ‘Through several practices, we concluded that it is right to fix the beak in this way, but that the material we used isn’t correct. How can we find a material perfectly fixed to the Pelican's beak?’ the team wondered.

And that’s where 3D printing comes in. ‘Because I heard the city hospitals were using 3D printing technology to print out a patient's bone as a surgeon reference, we wanted to try it. So we found Chairman Bao Shu, of the Dalian Ruilang Science and Technology Company,’ Liu Xuesen said. He came to the Dalian Forest Zoo the next day. ‘Originally we wanted to see if we can cut off the broken part of beak and install a 3D printed beak. But when measuring the sizes, we found that this Pelican grows connective tissue inside of the beak. So we dismissed the idea and decided to adopt a fixed method for it, using 3D printing technology to print out a board which fully matches the natural texture of a pelican's beak. It consists of two plates that hold the beak and which are then riveted together with stainless steel screws.’

Zoo workers made a mold for the Pelican's beak and Zhang Yanquan, staff from the Ruilang Company measured the data of the mold and designed parameters of the 3D model. ‘Especially the texture of Pelican’s beak was complex, as it is slightly twisted while the width between the lines varies. This makes it different from any existing designs. We have 3D printed 4 prototypes, which were all rejected, but the fifth print was successful. ”

The 3D printed plates themselves were accurate to the millimeter, 3D printed in white nylon and with a thickness of about five mm. The nylon in particular is useful, as it is corrosion-resistant, elastic and gives the bird enough protection and even a cushioning effect. The texture completely matched that of the beak. On both sides, there are 4 screw holes on the rivet, which are entirely consistent with the original hole location on the Pelican's beak. ‘It's accurate to the millimeter,’Zhang Yanquan said.

The surgery itself consisted of four steps. First, the two zoo staff members and Ruiland company staff held the bird beneath a bright light. Liu Xusen started to open the beak and apply a disinfected gauze, while Zhang Yanquan attached the 3D printed splint to the Pelican's beak. Twenty minutes later, Zhang Yanquan started screwing the stainless steel parts into the 4 holes. During the process, the pelican did feel discomfort and looked distressed, but fifteen minutes later the entire prosthetic was firmly attached. The beak itself seemed strong while opening and closing.

As soon as the staff let go of the bird, it slowly stood up, and confidently started to walk away. The next day, it was already able to start eating by itself. ‘The pelican can pick up its food itself today! This is the first time since May that the bird can pick up its food itself and eats very well,  he hasn't eaten so comfortable for a long time!’ Liu Xuesen said.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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