Printin’ up bones

Originally published in the 2015 edition of Innovation magazine

by Amy Raley

During 2014-15, when a Purdue veterinary medicine professor wanted students to work with a particular bone or set of bones, there was no need for a cadaver. A call to Cari Morgan with the request to “print it,” did just fine.

Morgan, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology, was the first to offer the latest in 3-D printer technology as a service to Purdue’s School of Veterinary Medicine faculty. She printed out plastic replicas of any bones requested as long as she was given the requisite MRI or CT scans and a bit of lead time.

“Even five years ago, I don’t think anybody was talking about 3-D printing, so it’s new, which makes it exciting,” Morgan says. “And it’s fun. The best part of it is when you take the CT scans — which are just two-dimensional images that look foreign to me — and then you watch them print out slowly by building up, layer by layer, until you take them off the printer and see what technology did. I think it’s really cool.”

Morgan has printed the leg bone of a horse and scapula of a dog, among other skeletal parts. Before graduating, she had hoped to get the opportunity to print the entire skeleton of a dog that could one day become a kit for veterinary students to use in constructing a skeleton. She says the technology is surprisingly inexpensive, but it does require much more time than the standard paper printer: “The only cost associated with 3-D printing is the filament. The 3-D printer we work with costs about $4,000, and we have this program that estimates how much it costs per bone. I printed something that was about half the size of your hand; it cost 31 cents, and took about an hour and a half to print.”

Beginning this fall, another student has picked up where Morgan left off to keep the bone printing service going.