Researchers at Emily Carr and the U of A collaborate on new low-cost 3D-printed surgical models
GRAND-initiated partnership utilizes breakthrough 3D printing material developed at Emily Carr University of Art + Design to generate low-cost surgical models for researchers at the University of Alberta.
Posted by GRAND NCE, November 13, 2013

Researchers at the University of Alberta are using 3D printed models from Emily Carr to expedite surgical planning, with the goal of reducing operating time and improving patient safety. PHOTO: SSRL website
Researchers at the University of Alberta are using 3D printed models from Emily Carr to expedite surgical planning, with the goal of reducing operating time and improving patient safety. PHOTO: SSRL website

(VANCOUVER, BC) 3D printing is revolutionizing the way surgeons visualize and plan operations. Using data converted from CT scans and other imaging technologies, doctors are now able to generate tangible, full-sized models of bones and organs with the use of commercial 3D printers. The models help surgeons train and prepare for difficult procedures, ultimately reducing operating time and improving patient safety.

The biggest challenge, however, is the cost. Many commercial 3D printers use expensive proprietary materials that have made printed models unaffordable for many hospitals and research facilities.

Thanks to a research collaboration enabled by GRAND, a new low-cost 3D printing material developed in-house by researchers at Emily Carr University of Art + Design has dramatically reduced the cost of surgical 3D models being produced and studied at the University of Alberta’s Surgical Simulation Research Lab (SSRL). This new material has allowed researchers to produce high quality surgical 3-D models from CT scans of hip bones with significant cost savings.

“The models were of excellent quality and at a very low cost. This allowed us to create more models for healthcare applications than we originally planned. It has let us do more research in surgical education,” said Dr. Bin Zheng, who leads SSRL. Dr. Zheng is the Endowed Research Chair in Surgical Simulation in the U of A's Department of Surgery, and a collaborating researcher in GRAND’s Healthcare Simulation project (HLTHSIM). HLTHSIM is examining the wider application of virtual and augmented reality to the training of physicians and healthcare professionals.

Supported in part through NSERC's College and Community Innovation Program applied research partnership funds, and by GRAND’s AD-NODE initiative that involves its three member art and design universities, the development of the new low-cost printing powder was led by Emily Carr faculty and AD-NODE affiliated researchers Keith Doyle, Philip Robbins, and Hélène Day Fraser at the University’s Intersections Digital Studios (IDS). The researchers have been experimenting with alternatives to the expensive proprietary powder-based printing materials. Their new formula reduces printing material costs from an average of $50 per pound to between $0.50 and $0.80 per pound.

The research is an outgrowth of the pioneering work done by Mark Ganter at the University of Washington’s OPEN 3DP lab. The Emily Carr researchers advanced one of OPEN 3DP's recipes for their printers and processes under exploration at IDS.

“After a semester’s work, we have a viable material that can be used in our standard powder-based printers,” said Doyle. “It’s very exciting for us that there is potential to further the [U of A] research, and to integrate the design process here with the pedagogical aspects of surgery.”

Partnership outcome of GRAND commercialization workshops

The cross-university collaboration was made possible through the efforts of Mark Salopek, GRAND’s Technology Transfer and Commercialization Manager.

Having hosted presentations from both the Emily Carr and U of A research projects during the 2013 GRAND Digital Wave Workshop series, Salopek realized the potential of using Emily Carr’s lower cost printing materials for 3D surgical models. Funded in part by the Western Economic Diversification Canada, the workshop series was created to foster new research partnerships and commercialization opportunities. Salopek subsequently put Dr. Zheng’s team in contact with Doyle and Robbins.

“We had no idea about the research going on at the U of A specifically, and it was Mark that really made that happen,” said Doyle. “He has been a great advocate, and I think he sees the value in the art and design application.”

“It’s valuable to have someone who is connected to the research community in a broad sense and not immersed in it,” said Robbins. “When you’re doing the research you’re very focused - whereas Mark has a good overview of what people are doing and developing and can see how he can interconnect them.  That is how this connection came about.”

Following a site visit by a U of A researcher, the Emily Carr team began producing models based on CT scans of hip and pelvic bones using their low-cost powder. They conducted a series of tests to print the scans to a resolution, and at a speed and cost, that would make such printing viable for the medical user.

“Since then, we have ordered and received several 3D models from them,” said Dr. Zheng. The collaboration also has the potential to develop cost-effective models for the visualization and study of other surgical procedures.

“Emily Carr's 3D printing formula democratizes the 3D printing experience,” said Salopek. “Essentially, the creativity of artists paved the way for surgeons to improve the well-being of their patients.”

Low-cost printing powder to make 3D printing affordable for businesses

With the development of inexpensive, off-the-shelf printing material, Emily Carr researchers foresee new applications on the horizon for commercial 3D printers.

The plaster-based material is refractory (can withstand high heat), making it usable in ceramics and foundry based processes. IDS Printers are already used for prototyping machine parts used in camera equipment at Emily Carr’s Stereoscopic 3D Centre.

The new printing powder, in combination with open source 3D printers built from plans available online, could lower the 3D printing entry cost for small businesses. Focused on small scale 3D printers, the researchers have partnered with local business Offload Studios, a commercial output centre for 3D printing based in Abbotsford, BC to test the formula.

"Right now we have a number of emerging [industry] partnerships in the works," said Doyle. "We're really looking to exploit this material in another way, and really explore the potential for low-cost manufacturing."

The researchers are also currently working on an alternative binder - a solution that acts as a glue for the powder - to further reduce the material costs.

AD-NODE initiative bridges GRAND network and Canadian art and design institutions

The materials experimentation undertaken at Emily Carr was part of GRAND’s AD-NODE project. Launched in 2012, the joint pilot involving OCAD University, NSCAD University, and Emily Carr University of Art + Design aimed to foster sustained collaboration between these Canadian art and design institutions and the GRAND research network.

“The great thing about connecting with the GRAND network is that Emily Carr has the opportunity to tease out those really interesting findings and say ‘where is the application?’ and ‘where can we really catalyze this discovery?’,” said Robbins. “We are very interested in what is being developed elsewhere as we look at those ideas in a very different way – we’re not an engineering school. We bring an art and design process, and an art and design way of thinking.”

“It’s been a very fruitful term with the AD-NODE affiliation,” said Doyle. “There has been some really exciting work generated through AD-NODE, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have art and design at the very beginning of these projects.”




Media Contact:

Spencer Rose
Communications Officer