Scan, interpret, make: 3D printing from the industrial to the medical

Educating the market

“At the moment it’s so much of an education for local businesses where we are, the way it all operates,” explained Callum Davies from Filor, which in May added 3D printing to its range of 3D services, of attitudes towards the technology.

“At the moment to them it seems a little like black magic; a bit foreign to them,” he told Manufacturers' Monthly.

Demystifying the technology and educating the market have been a big part of what Davies has been up to this year, though he sees huge potential in Western Australia for 3D printing to make a difference, especially when joined with existing laser scanning and metrology.

Davies joined Filor this year, and had spent much of his professional life before that using scanning and measurement, learning CMM systems at mining manufacturer Geographe.

“They used it directly in their quality system to double-check really tight tolerances like bores and gearboxes; it’s quite a big deal for manufacturers, and it’s quite a part of doing the old micrometer Vernier-style measuring.

“So having an arm that you can go ‘right, here’s a bore on the left hand side of my gearbox, here’s the other bore. How concentric are these? Here’s my machine tolerance that I’ve given in the drawing and here’s the nominal size that I want. Is it a pass or a fail?”

As a scanning, measurement and 3D printing bureau, their service is aimed at those wanting to skip the capital investment on an in-house Romer or FaroArm and on training somebody to use these.

“We’re basically a service bureau for data acquisition,” said Davies of that side of his business.

“Basically we go out and we collect data for engineers, drafties, surgeons, historians – all types of industry – and we take the data and provide it to them. For historians we also give them the option of making a 3D print of it for study if they don’t want to touch the original or if they’ve only got it for a certain period of time.”

Which brings us back to the newest area of the business – additive manufacturing through fused deposition modelling – for which Filor invested in a Stratasys machine earlier in the year.

Filling a niche

It’s still a work in progress to show clients and potential clients how it can be useful for them, but the effort’s worth it, and there’s a gap in the market in the south-west of the country, Davies believes.

“In WA we’ve got a couple of companies that offer 3D printing, but unfortunately there’s really only one that offers high-quality 3D printing and they do colour, but the material substance is not what we want,” he said.

Filor serves industries such as engineering, architecture, design and even  marketing, but of particular interest are the medical uses of additive manufacturing, for example in creating prosthetics or in prepping for surgeons.

Davies cites his own hip replacement operations, which might’ve been completed much quicker and more easily. A 45-minute and a three-hour operation could possibly have both have been made shorter if the orthopaedic surgeon had more detailed information, such as physical models based on scans, Davies guesses.

Getting into hospital

Royal Perth Hospital has been using the technology for some time. In 2006 it performed a hip replacement with a joint made out of selectively laser sintered titanium alloy. It acquired a printer in 2010 and 3D printing is put to uses at the hospital including pre-planning for surgery.

In delicate surgery – such as in the recent high-profile story about Washington Children’s Hospital preparing surgeons before heart operations – 3D printing has been enormously useful in knowing what needs to be done before an incision is even considered.   

“The same thing applies in neurosurgery,” said Davies. “If we can print out a patient’s skull exactly to scale, based on a CT scan, and if someone has, say, cancer, they can utilise a third-party printing service that uses a polymer base, to try and print a brain based on the CT scan that has got the same kind of properties of a brain in the rubbery aspect, but also with a tumour in there. It allows a surgeon to sit at his desk, maybe a week before his surgery, get some tools out, and practise the surgery based on that patient’s exact anatomy.

“And that’s where we want to be. We want to position ourselves regionally in WA to aid the medical community. And whether that means we interface with the diagnostics labs, where they run CT scans and the MRIs, or whether we go straight to the surgeons, either way, all we need to do is supply them with the correct data, and CT scanning we’re getting nowadays is so high resolution that 3D prints are almost too easy.

Davies believes that having 3D printing as something more widespread throughout hospitals could bring huge benefits, with shorter stays and, as a cumulative result, shorter hospital waiting lists.

“The interface with technology is already there, it’s just the education that’s lacking.”

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