May 5, 2017 | By Tess

When we think of titanium 3D printing, it is usually in the context of the highest rungs of industry, being used to make expensive bespoke car parts or medical devices. But in a sign that additive manufacturing is becoming more accessible, two groups of undergraduate students from Duke University have been using and exploring the benefits of metal 3D printing through the creation of biomedical devices.

The two projects, which are part of the students’ senior design projects, are seeking to design and produce an intricate 3D printed titanium spacer for spinal fusion surgeries, and a 3D printed titanium scaffold for treating bone defects.

While polymer-based 3D printing has become relatively common at the Durham-based university (with over 60 3D printers in operation at the Duke Innovation Co-Lab), metal 3D printing has been somewhat more restricted. And understandably so: the technology not only requires more operational and material costs, but using a titanium 3D printer requires more knowledge and comes with a significantly steeper learning curve than say, FDM 3D printing.

To the pleasure of the mechanical engineering undergraduates, however, Duke University has given them the chance to work with a metal 3D printer to realize their senior projects. And while it has reportedly taken the students some time to learn the ins and outs of the tech, it seems to have paid off.

"The metal 3D printer allows us to make designs that could never be fabricated by traditional manufacturing processes," explained Sam Morton, a senior in mechanical engineering at Duke. "It allows us to make actual biomedical devices out of titanium that we can then test and get feedback on from the surgeons we're working with.”

The two student groups have taken up the respective challenges of creating a titanium spacer for spinal fusion surgery, and titanium scaffolds for treating bone defects. The former, which traditionally resembles a tiny, hollow, Lego brick, is usually implanted between two vertebrae to treat back pain caused by two vertebrae rubbing together. The spacer not only provides a bit of space between the two affected vertebrae, but also helps to promote bone growth so that the vertebrae ultimately fuse together.

The titanium scaffolds, for their part, are used to give extra strength and support to bones that have undergone surgery. It is beneficial for these types of scaffolds to have a porous nature so that they too encourage natural bone regrowth.

By using metal 3D printing, the student teams are hoping to advance these two biomedical devices and to overcome certain challenges that exist when using more traditional manufacturing methods. For instance, current versions of the medical devices are either too opaque and hard for doctors to visualize the patient’s bone growth progress (metal) or are not strong enough (plastic).

According to the students, they are attempting to create titanium devices that use the strength of metal but also integrate a sponge-like structure that enables bone growth and allows doctors to see and visualize any progress down the line.

"The titanium 3D printer is a really great opportunity because it lets you create structures that you couldn't make using normal manufacturing techniques," said Samantha Sheppard, a senior in mechanical engineering. "We're able to create porous structures that are better for bone ingrowth and that really could only be made with this printer."

At present, the biomedical devices 3D printed by the undergraduate students are not approved for human use, and it is unclear whether that could be a potential option. Still, the experience of designing and additively manufacturing medical-grade devices will certainly set the students up for more successes.

"For the students to actually be able to make real parts that match what the doctors want designed and then to actually test those parts is something that you would rarely see at a university," said Ken Gall, associate director of Duke MEDx, an initiative to strengthen ties between clinicians and engineers. "I wanted to change what Duke was capable of doing and part of that involved bringing a 3D metal printer to campus. It's going to open a lot of windows for different types of projects at all levels, from freshmen to faculty."



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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