The Invent Health Initiative: The 30 Year Evolution of 3D Print Technology

Photo of a 3D printed protein

3D print of hemagglutinin (HA), one of the proteins found on the surface of influenza virus that enables the virus to infect human cells. Credit: National Institutes of Health, NIAID Flickr 3D Prints

Darrell Hurt, Ph.D., led development of the 3D Print Exchange at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of many initiatives sponsored by the IDEA Lab at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This is the third post in our Invent Health blog series

Because I lived overseas in 1986, I was not among the millions of school children who witnessed the Challenger space shuttle disaster on live TV. But President Reagan’s use of John G. Magee’s poetry to describe how the seven NASA astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God” stirs my emotions, even thirty years later. That year also saw a number of other noteworthy events, many of which would have profound effects on our lives. One particular event in 1986 received little attention because, at the time, we could not conceive the monumental impact it would make in the years that followed.

That year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved a patent filed by Charles Hull for his “Apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography.” It was the world’s first patent for a device that we now call a 3D printer. It would be another three years before 3D printers became commercially available through Hull’s company, 3D Systems. The technology was first embraced by the manufacturing industry, where the new method of “additive manufacturing” allowed designers to create prototypes rapidly and on site, which eliminated more costly and time-consuming traditional processes such as milling or tool and die making. Despite these advantages, the machines were large, expensive, and developments were driven by specific commercial interests. It would be 25 years after 3D Systems’ first sale before 3D printers began to reach the mainstream consumer market.

Hull’s original patent, and subsequent patents developed by 3D Systems and others, were revolutionary, but the truly exciting developments came decades later, when these patents expired, creating opportunities for others to use the technology and build upon it. When the patent on fused deposition modeling (one of the techniques used in 3D printing) ran out in 2009, efforts by Dr. Adrian Bowyer and his open-source RepRap (Rapid Replicating Platform) initiative led to the modern 3D printing movement.

The explosion of innovation stemming from that movement led to people using 3D printing in ways that Charles Hull never could have dreamed of back in 1986:

  • Thirty years after the Challenger tragedy, NASA is using 3D printing in all sorts of applications to improve the safety and well-being of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
  • In February 1986, Pixar Animation studios opened in California; now, they regularly use 3D printing in animation.
  • Microsoft put out its initial public offering on March 14, 1986; less than 30 years later, they entered the 3D printing software market and are spearheading a new file format for computer-assisted design.
  • In April 1986, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl caused a deadly and toxic environmental disaster; “flying” 3D printers are now being used to clean up radioactive sites.
  • Greg LeMond became the first non-European professional to win the Tour de France in July 1986. This year, Columbian cyclist Nairo Quintana hopes to win the competition in clothing developed with the help of 3D printing.
  • The Statue of Liberty centennial was commemorated in 1986 with numerous replicas and souvenirs; now, 3D printing allows anyone, anywhere, to 3D print their very own replica.

I remember 1986, but like everyone else at the time, I had no idea of the impact that 3D printing and making in general would have on me personally and professionally. As a structural biologist, my research focuses on discovering, through experimental methods, the structures of proteins and using computer-based methods to comprehend those structures. Because structure determines function in molecular biology, understanding the complicated shape of proteins is critical to understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying all life.

Just as Watson and Crick built and benefitted from a physical model of DNA back in 1953, I knew that it would help me both understand and tell others about the much more complicated structures of proteins if only I could hold a model of a biomolecule in my hand. But manufacturing such complex structures is virtually impossible to do with traditional processes.

About eight years ago, I was fortunate enough to have access to a large, state-of-the-art commercial 3D printer, so I started playing around with 3D printing to make models of proteins. Finally, I had highly accurate, physical models of these beautiful and complex molecules. Using them, my research collaborators at NIH and I immediately began to see these structures in a new light. New insights led to new research discoveries and my enthusiasm for 3D printing grew.

Thanks to those expired patents and innovations by makers, hundreds of consumer-level, “desktop” 3D printers are now available, some for as little as $300. I saw how it might be possible for more people to print their own scientific and biomedical models, but there weren’t many designs available online, and they are difficult to createeven for someone with my experience. My team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, along with collaborators at the National Library of Medicine and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, created the NIH 3D Print Exchange. The Exchange is a website where anyone can download or share biomedical models for free, and we also built custom tools to help people with no experience create their own scientific models.

Since we launched the Exchange, we have done a lot of outreach in the Maker Movement, and the incredible creativity in the community never ceases to amaze me. From people like Dr. Matthew Bramlet, who is creating a library of 3D-printable hearts to help doctors and patients better understand congenital heart disease, to Dr. Jon Schull and the founders and members of the e-NABLE network, who are changing the lives of children and adults with limb differences, there are countless stories of everyday people creating (and sharing!) innovative tools to improve health and quality of life. From what I have witnessed just over the last few years, the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize healthcare, and health research, is immense, and I am eager to see where it takes us.

Finally, I want to recognize the HHS IDEA Lab, for teaching me and my team that approaching challenges with an entrepreneurial spirit can increase the impact of science. The IDEA Lab was instrumental in helping us to, as one of my team members put it, “break all the rules” in creating the NIH 3D Print Exchange. As Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, so aptly put it in the Invent Health Town Hall held on January 28, it is “a lot easier to get to ‘yes’ if you don’t have to go through ‘no’ first.” If you would like to learn more about our project and experience 3D-printed science firsthand, I invite you to visit us at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. The event takes place at the D.C. Convention Center April 16-17, 2016, and is free to the public. I hope to see you there!

The NIH 3D Print Exchange was developed with funding and support from the HHS Ignite and HHS Ventures Initiatives as well as significant internal support from Office of Cyber Infrastructure and Computational Biology at NIAID. The Project Team received an HHS Innovates Award in 2015, along with the HHS Innovates “Secretary’s Pick.” The Exchange has been featured at various Maker events, including the 2014 White House Maker Faire and the 2015 National Maker Faire.

This was post was co-written with Meghan Coakley, Ph.D., founding member and current project lead for the NIH 3D Print Exchange. If you have questions or comments about the NIH 3D Print Exchange, please direct them to Dr. Coakley at 3dprint [at] nih [dot] gov.