Feb 23, 2016 | By Benedict
Bioengineering researchers from Rice University, Texas, have hacked a commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter, turning the machine into an open-source Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printer. “OpenSLS” costs at least 40 times less than its commercial counterparts.
In a paper published in PLOS ONE, the Rice researchers have explained the modification process behind their hacked laser cutter. Using low-cost, open-source microcontrollers, the team was able to build the OpenSLS 3D printer for under $10,000. In comparison, commercial SLS platforms typically cost around $400,000.
“SLS technology has been around for more than 20 years, and it’s one of the only technologies for 3D printing that has the ability to form objects with dramatic overhangs and bifurcations,” said study co-author Jordan Miller, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice. “SLS technology is perfect for creating some of the complex shapes we use in our work, like the vascular networks of the liver and other organs.”
An important and defining feature of OpenSLS is its compatibility with several types of powdered material. During the study, researchers successfully 3D printed with both nylon powder and polycaprolactone (PCL), a nontoxic polymer. This material flexibility researchers to use the 3D printer to experiment with biomaterials for regenerative medicine.
“Designing our own laser-sintering 3D printer means there’s no company-mandated limit to the types of biomaterials we can experiment with for regenerative medicine research,” said Ian Kinstlinger, a graduate student in Miller’s group and co-author on the paper.
“In terms of price, OpenSLS brings this technology within the reach of most labs, and our goal from the outset has been to do this in a way that makes it easy for other people to reproduce our work and help the field standardize on equipment and best practices,” Kinstlinger added. “We’ve open-sourced all the hardware designs and software modifications and shared them via Github.”
SLS 3D printers cost much more to produce than extrusion-based 3D printers, since they use a powerful laser to melt powders instead of a more basic hot-end to melt plastic filament. As such, Miller and his team were keen to create a more affordable machine using existing hardware, to expand SLS-based research across the globe.
“The process is a bit like finishing a creme brûlée, when a chef sprinkles out a layer of powdered sugar and then heats the surface with a torch to melt powder grains together and form a solid layer,” Miller said. “Here, we have powdered biomaterials, and our heat source is a focused laser beam. Because the sintered object is fully supported in 3D by powder, the technique gives us access to incredibly complex architectures that other 3D printing techniques simply cannot produce.”
Miller had been researching the possibility of modifying a CO2 laser cutter since 2013. “The cutter’s laser is already in the correct wavelength range—around 10 micrometers—and the machines come with hardware to control laser power and the x-axis and y-axis with high precision,” he explained.
According to Miller, Kinstlinger’s tests with PCL were particularly important, as the success of OpenSLS with the biocompatible plastic meant that the machine could be used to create 3D printed medical implants. Kinstlinger found that he could create very smooth PCL surfaces by exposing the parts to solvent vapor in 5-minute periods. These smooth 3D prints worked well as templates for bone-like engineered tissues. “The stem cells stuck to the surface of the templates, survived, differentiated down a bone lineage and deposited calcium across the entire scaffold,” Kinstlinger explained.
“Our work demonstrates that OpenSLS provides the scientific community with an accessible platform for the study of laser sintering and the fabrication of complex geometries in diverse plastics and biomaterials,” Concluded Miller. “It’s another win for the open-source community.”
Posted in 3D Printer
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Erick Wolf wrote at 2/24/2016 1:03:06 AM:
Amazing work, Jordan. This is the kind of pioneering research that this industry needs to grow.