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The Evolving Applications of 3D Printing in the Lab

Additive manufacturing can lessen your reliance on external suppliers

Chia-Wei Hsu

Chia-Wei Hsu is an information scientist at CAS (a division of the American Chemical Society).

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3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has historically been a niche technology limited to engineers and hobbyists. Yet today, the 3D printing industry is booming, with increasing numbers of labs having access to the technology and materials becoming more affordable.

A recent analysis by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society, revealed the number of publications about 3D printing has grown by over 200 percent in the last five years, with over 22,000 scientific publications relating to the biomedical applications of 3D printing alone. With recent advances in 3D printing, including the fabrication of pharmaceuticals, prosthetics, and artificial organs, the applications in biomedicine are seemingly limitless.

Entering the world of 3D printing may be daunting. For a start, there is a range of 3D printing technologies to choose from, each with its own unique strengths and limitations. Here are some key ways to use 3D printing technology to help your lab run more efficiently. 

3D printing technology and its applications

There are four different types of 3D printing technology: extrusion, vat polymerization, material jetting, and powder bed fusion.  Of these, extrusion is the most widely used technology, specifically fused deposition modelling (FDM). FDM printers work by melting a plastic filament and depositing it layer by layer to create the final object. These machines are particularly popular as desktop and consumer 3D printers due to their relatively low cost and accessibility, with prices starting from around $200. If you’re looking to print detailed or require a smoother finish, then vat polymerization or material jetting may be more suited to your needs. 

FDM is well-suited to creating parts with a mechanical function, such as holders and stands, ideal for vials, tubes, and cuvettes. Besides manufacturing new lab supplies, you can also mend what is broken by printing individual parts to repair laboratory equipment like pipettes. Your lab could see a quick return on investment just from the ability to create custom product parts like these.

Whatever your laboratory specializes in, chances are that 3D printing can enhance its current performance and processes. Several scientific fields are already reaping the benefits of this technology. Advances in 3D printing have helped speed up and simplify the fabrication of microfluidic devices, which was once cumbersome and time intensive. The technology is even being explored to develop more intricate and sophisticated structures, such as organ-on-a-chip devices, designed to simulate the function of organs or systems within the body. 3D printing has also benefited the field of microscopy, enabling the manufacture of microscope parts such as lens inserts and mounts, as well as objects such as microscopy chambers for holding samples. Overall, such applications enable labs to be less reliant on external services and suppliers.

Some of the most exciting uses for 3D printing technology are within the field of biomedicine. Biofabrication is an evolving research field that has received significant attention, with 3D printing supporting the construction of cartilage, muscle, skin, and even organs. 3D printing also makes implants and prosthetics more accessible to those who need them, undercutting the high manufacturing costs typically associated with prosthetics. The technology also has several potential pharmaceutical applications, including developing drug products, implants, and drug delivery systems. Finally, another key application for the technology is modelling, with 3D printing making it possible to convert raw data into 3D prints from crystallographic information files to nuclear magnetic resonance data, helping to bring your lab’s data to life.

Advice for bringing 3D printing into your lab

Laboratories across the globe are integrating 3D printing into everyday use. But when it comes to 3D printing technologies, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The challenge remains to select a 3D printer suited to the task at hand. Your choice of printer will depend on numerous factors, such as your manufacturing needs, the properties you require, and the materials you wish to use. You should also think carefully about the current, and possibly future, intended applications and marry it with a printing technology, understanding its limitations while balancing the time and financial cost involved.

In addition, online repositories provide forums for scientists to share their designs for printable components, making it easy for labs to begin printing the moment their new machine is set up. However, it’s important to be aware that a lot of these models are often incomplete, or the designs may require some optimization before you can use them in your own lab. A basic knowledge of 3D design will serve you well here so that your lab can unlock the full potential of additive manufacturing. Armed with these skills, you can create something from scratch and have it in your hands within a matter of hours. The wide array of available materials means that you can experiment with different properties to create fit-for-purpose objects. It may take some trial and error and a few iterations before you strike the right balance, but the effort will be worthwhile.

Looking ahead

3D printing has come a long way since its inception in the 1980s, becoming an indispensable technology within many industries. According to CAS Content CollectionTM, annual trends of journal publications for biomedical applications of 3D printing indicate that innovation in this area is growing. There has never been a better time to explore the potential of this technology within your own laboratory.