3D printers may soon be common household items. Or at least – hopefully – common laboratory items. I recently converted confocal data from a biofilm into a 3D print.
The biofilm print features one of the larger tower structures I have observed for this archaeal species, Haloferax volcanii, which lives at high salt concentrations. A 3D reconstruction of the same image stack was recently published in an article in BMC Biology. The data was collected in 2012 at the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University.
At 7.5 cm in height, the print is five hundred times larger than the actual size of the biofilm. This would be equivalent to making a print of a person taller than the empire state building.
I chose to print in sandstone because it is one of the more economical materials. It also has a nice natural feel, unlike plastic. My second choice was ceramic. However, each material comes with its own practical guidelines: ceramic is both more delicate (as you might expect) and preserves less detail.
There is a great potential for this sort of work. I think that any form of scientific data that has a three dimensional element can and should be 3D printed. 3D glasses allow a virtual sense of three dimensions by playing a kind of trick on human stereovision. But this is not an intuitive experience. Having something physical to see and touch is ultimately the best way to appreciate and understand anything in 3D – especially something invisible.
A video showing the model used to create the 3D print:
- The NIH has started a data bank of sharable 3D prints related to biomedical science: the NIH 3D Print Exchange.
- The global 3D printing market is expected to expand from 1.15 billion dollars in 2013 to 4.8 billion dollars in 2018.
- The first 3D printed electric car was recently produced: the Local Motors Strati. The company will release build manuals and files for the car so that customers can download and print it themselves.
- Other large format printers are being produced that can build single objects to up to 18 feet in diameter.