Open Source 3D Printing Technology & Healthcare

3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing or desktop fabrication, involves a process for making three dimensional (3D) solid objects from a digital model. The use of additive manufacturing, or 3D fabrication machines, takes virtual designs from computer aided design (CAD) or modeling software, transforms them into thin, virtual, horizontal cross-sections and then creates successive layers until the model is complete.

3D printing can be faster, more flexible and less expensive than traditional manufacturing processes, especially when producing prototype solutions or relatively small quantities of parts. This technology is currently being used in a wide range of manufacturing industries, e.g. automobile, aerospace, engineering, construction, medicine.   

3D Printing Systems

Numerous individuals, open source groups, do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts, academic institutions, and companies are working on the development of 3D printers suitable for desktop use at a price many households may be able to afford. Example of some of the more notable 3D projects and solutions to date include:

RepRap Project - One of the longest running projects in the desktop 3D printer category, The RepRap project aims to produce an 'open source' software driven 3D desktop printer.
Fab@Home – An open source project developing printers that make use of anything squirtable through a nozzle, from chocolate to silicon sealant and chemical reactants.
Solidoodle – Producers of a small, out-of-the-box 3D printing device — starting at just $499.
SeeMeCNC - Bringing their H-1 3D printing solutions to the DIY/Open Source community. 
Printrbot – Bringing 3D printers, derived from previous RepRap models, to the DIY community.

* Because RepRap is committed to open source, many related projects have used their design for inspiration, creating an ecosystem of many related or derivative 'open' 3D printer systems. Other 3D companies to check out include: 3DSystems, MakerBot, Stratasys, Cubify, Objet, Ultimaker.

The development of low cost, open source 3D printers is rapidly gaining attention in the developing world  as it enables individuals or small companies to easily and economically make products from readily available resources to meet the needs of local communities.

While initially used to more rapidly develop prototypes of new products back in the 1980's, as the years have gone by and the technology has advanced, additive manufacturing or 3D printing has moved further down the chain into business manufacturing processes, often in many unforeseen ways.

Open Source Software for 3D Printing

If you or your organization is just getting started with 3D printing, you might want to try some of the free and open source 3D modeling software products such as:

SketchUp – Fun, free, and easy to use. With the Push/Pull tool you can extrude any flat surface into a 3D form. Furthermore, it works together with Google Earth.
Blender – A free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License.  It is a powerful program containing features that are characteristic of high-end 3D software.
OpenSCAD - Software for creating solid 3D CAD objects. It is free and open source software available for Linux/UNIX, MS Windows, and Mac OS X. 
Tinkercad – Provides a new and faster way of creating a wide range of designs for your 3D printer. Once your project is ready simply download the STL file and start your 3D print.

* Check out other free and open source software here. Commercial software such as CAD software AutoCAD, Rhino, Maya, and SolidWorks are also good for designing 3D models.

The standard data interface between CAD software and 3D printers is the Standard Tessellation Language (STL) file format. A digitized 3D-model is saved in STL format and then sent to a 3D printer. The 3D printer then lays down successive layers of liquid, powder or sheet material that are then fused together to create the final object.

3D Printing & Healthcare

Over the past year, there has been a dramatic increase in the study and use of 3D printing technology by biotechnology firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications. Building organs and body parts using 3D printing techniques, layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium or sugar matrix and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. This field of biotech research has been variously referred to as organ printing, bio-printing, body part printing and computer-aided tissue engineering, among other terms.

Some of the most recent news clips or articles published in Open Health News about 3D printing in healthcare include the following:

Cartilage Made Easy With Novel Hybrid Printer  - Printing 3D tissue has taken a major step forward with the creation of a printer that simplifies the creation of implantable cartilage.
Bioengineers use open source 3-D printer to create human organs - Bioengineers at MIT and Penn are one step closer toward the creation of full-fledged human organs in the laboratory.
Surgeon Uses 3D Printer To Make Models Of Bone  - An orthopedic surgeon has started using 3D printing to make replicas of bones to be operated on during surgical procedures.
3D-printed sugar network to help grow artificial liver - Researchers have moved a step closer to creating a synthetic liver using 3D printer technology.
Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware – We are now seeing the creation of open-source scientific hardware for research purposes by combining three-dimensional (3D) printing with open-source microcontrollers using open source software.
How Open Source Hardware Is Driving the 3D-Printing Industry

* Read about other examples of 3D Printing in Medicine at

To conclude, in a recent interview eFuturist Ray Kurzweil said, "When information can create physical products, there will be open-source versions of that also, and access to 3D printing will be even more ubiquitous than computing platforms are today."  To some, 3D printing may still seem like a science fiction concept, but to those who are willing to open their eyes, it is here now. Pay attention to the growing open source hardware (OSHW) and 3D printing movement!

3D Printing – Other Selected Links
3D Printing Event
3D Printing Industry
Singularity Hub     

Author:  Peter Groen, senior editor at Open Health News (OHN). He worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for over 30 years. During his federal career, he occupied a number of senior health Information Technology (IT) management positions within VA Headquarters and in the field.