Pioneer Michael Bartellas provides a brief description of how to create a 3D printing biomedical laboratory on a college or university campus by sharing some of the ways he was able to start up his space.
My name is Michael Bartellas and I am a co-founder of MUN MED 3D, which is the first 3D printing biomedical laboratory created and housed within the Health Science Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. I want to provide some thoughts that I found helpful in creating MUN MED 3D, and how these points may be replicated for others. I must state that along this road there have been several key collaborators and supporters that have ensured that our initiative would grow. Amongst these individuals, included is a good friend of mine, and the other co-founder of MUN MED 3D, Stephen Ryan. The following account has been influenced by Stephen and several other key players.
The idea to create a 3D printing laboratory was conceived after Stephen and myself, who are both medical students, became enthralled with 3D printing and its use in the field of medicine. We started off exploring the various medical 3D printing applications, and reviewed the scholarly literature in this area. We both bought our own small printers and learned how to print, along with making basic designs through Meshmixer.
Through key mentorship at our university, we discovered a grant that was meant to support initiatives that involved teaching, learning, innovation and collaboration in the university.
After months of preparing this grant application, we were awarded the funding. From this, we were able to buy two 3D printers (Ultimaker 2+ and LulzBot Taz 6), could hire an engineering co-op student, and were allotted a space within the hospital to utilize. We created MUN MED 3D and have not looked back.
Since our inception 8 months ago we have employed 3 co-op engineering work term positions, have collaborated with over 10 different medical divisions, engaged with several engineering and medical students, published scholarly work, presented our research locally and nationally, engaged with the local and international communities through teaching and producing prosthesis’, supported STEM curriculum at the elementary and high school level, been featured in local media, met with members of the provincial government, and have 35 completed or ongoing projects!
I believe it is important to highlight these various items to show the value of creating a 3D printing medical laboratory, and to hopefully inspire those of you reading!
Below I have a listed a variety of steps/thoughts that I believe were important in our development.
Know the current applications
When speaking to others about the use of 3D printing, especially in the field of medicine, it is vital to have a sufficient level of knowledge in the 3D printing field first. Stephen and I read extensively on 3D printing and medicine before approaching any physician looking to engage in a project in their area. I carried out a literature review in this area early on to truly gain an appreciation of medical 3D printing. You want to be the expert in this field as this is what you have to offer the physician you approach when seeking collaboration opportunities.
Play with the printer and software
Prior to engaging with anyone to develop a 3D printing medical project, it is essential to understand how 3D printers worked. I played around with my Micro M3D for several months discovering its limitations, and how to maximize successful prints. I also used software such as Meshmixer and Blender to try my hand at 3D design. Important for medical printing is being able to convert CT and MRI scans into 3D renderings. This was something I practiced with several programs, however, Osirix Lite and Slicer were the programs I found most user-friendly. I printed several open source items from Thingiverse, and found publicly available CT/MRI file sets from Osirix’s database. I used a variety of articles, and YouTube videos to direct my education in this area, and have compiled the most useful ones one my personal website. You will need to master these skills in order to produce projects, train others and develop your 3D printing space!
Identify and print medically relevant open source models
When starting off, it is useful to have medical models available to show others. There are several medical models openly available that can be printed on fused-deposition modeling printers. When first discussing the usefulness of 3D printed medical models it is extremely helpful to showcase the models, and have your potential collaborator hold the models themselves. Using the models for show and tell will elicit many questions about 3D printing, that you will now be able to answer.
Connect with interested parties
This step can be interpreted in several ways. You want to engage with parties who will have potential interest in your initiative, for example, this may include individuals from engineering, who develop educational curriculum, or who teach anatomy. Other interested parties may include students looking to engage in innovate research, and clinicians who are interested in research or potential patient applications for medical printing.
This is a critical step, especially for those who are not already in a faculty position. This mentorship need not necessarily come from someone who is a 3D printing expert, but your mentor would have to share your vision, and be willing to support, and connect you with key stakeholders who can help you achieve your goal. Mentorship need not be limited to a single individual, however, ensure that everyone is in line with the vision, and be clear on how best to move forward.
Prototype - for free
This one may be a difficult suggestion for people to follow, however, for our lab this was essential to growing interest, support, and eventually credibility to acquire further funding. Budget to cover the cost of initial prototype design, and production. In our case, this meant taking on several of the projects personally, to ensure the design was correct, and completed prints occurred in a timely fashion. A barrier to project development and engagement can be associated with cost, however, if you approach an interested clinician, student, or other faculty member and seek collaboration without this project cost barrier you will certainly increase your chance of collaboration. Initially, I covered the printing costs for these projects, but the costs were eventually covered by our newly acquired grant funding. Once you have demonstrated your usefulness as a research partner, through high-quality professional work, it will be easier to arrange a cost-sharing strategy for future projects. A key part of innovation for us has been engaging other students in our work as well. We invited students to innovate in our space without any financial barriers, this has produced great projects, and continued engagement with the student population.
Design projects that are achievable
Especially when starting off, it is important to fulfill your project commitments. You want to create trust between, and amongst those you collaborate with, which stems from coming through on your printing commitments. As the saying goes “under promise, and overproduce” is something to keep in mind. As you become more established it will be necessary to innovate and attempt to create solutions that work, which sometimes involves taking on projects that at first might not seem “achievable.”
Discover a niche - claim it
As the field of 3D printing is exploding with new discoveries and applications it is important to try and find a niche area. In our lab, as one of Stephen’s key interests, we have a large focus on exploring and innovating in 3D rural medical applications. This is in line with a major population need in our area, and we have several new thoughts/innovations developing in this field.
We have created a space where individuals can drop down to the lab whenever they like. This means people feel free to come to discuss a project, look at the models, or even show off the work to their colleagues. The open-door policy we have established perpetuates future work, and we love engaging with those who want to learn more about this area. Also, between the MUN MED 3D team, we are quick to reply and set up meetings, to ensure projects move forward and are not stagnant.
Connect with other university partners
As alluded to in step 4 it is important to connect with interested stakeholders. However, this step is meant to directly engage with other faculties across the university. Touching base with the faculties of business, engineering, sciences, and the like, can help to produce more research, engage more funding from the university, and help to spread the news about 3D printing work on campus.
To gain support as a laboratory it is critical to produce scholarship. This means writing up manuscripts for publication, presenting at conferences, and to engage with faculty to support simulation and curriculum development. All of this is very possible through medical 3D printing research at this time.
It can be difficult to acquire seed funding, and even financial support throughout building your lab. There is nothing I can write that will guarantee support, however here are a few thoughts. First, it is important to look for any grants or awards that may be suited for your 3D printing initiative. These can be large grants to fund your initiative, or smaller awards to support individual projects. There is an option to operate the lab as a small business, such as charging to recover cost of material, and administering a consultation fee. These rates can vary, but exploring costs of online printing services, or local 3D hubs can provide an estimate to charge. In connection to step 10, there may be a way to connect with other university departments who may be willing to provide financial support for in kind work, or project collaboration. Considering the wider community, there may be opportunity to engage fundraising initiatives, or public/private donation campaigns as well.
Build a team
As the projects grow you will have to build a team that can support the increased workload. This team can include interested medical and engineering students, staff and faculty, and partners in higher mentorship and administrative roles. Your team must be created to be able to manage the capacity and intellectual needs of your lab.
The final step is to create a vision for your lab’s growth. This will direct the future of your lab and how will you grow. You need to ensure that growth is focused, and that your lab will be sustainable in the future as it aligns with your vision. Sustainability may mean focusing your lab’s needs on innovation, or continuing to produce a valuable service for your stakeholders. The sustainability of your lab will stem back to leadership, funding, and your team.
I hope that you found some value in these words. Good luck with your 3D printing goals, and think big.