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Medical Modeling, University of Pavia Makes 3D Printing an “Area of Strategic Interest”

Under the Leadership of Professor Ferdinando Auricchio of the Computational Mechanics and Advanced Materials Group, 3D printing is now playing a major role in the activities that the University of Pavia, one of the oldest and most important in Italy, considers strategic for its students curricula. The new 3D printing center is going gorw in the present and in the medium to long term future, with a particular focus on medical modeling.

“The proposed strategic idea aims at creating a center for the study of additive rapid prototyping to meet the demand coming from different application fields, such as industry and health,” Professor Auricchio explains in the University official statement, “Rapid prototyping, in particular 3D printing, is an emerging technology that needs to be more deeply investigated in terms of materials, virtual modeling, potential applications, as well as its impact on company profits and business models.”

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I had a chance to meet professor Auricchio a few months ago when they launched a crowd-funding project which aimed to build a 3D printing service to cater primarily to the demand of University Hospital surgeons. That project has continued to grow and now Professor Auricchio leads a team of several students and post-graduates who contribute with experience from several different backgrounds, from mechanical engineering to bioengineering, materials science and more.

For the University of Pavia, additive rapid prototyping already cuts across many different areas, involving several research subjects and allowing the development of new high-impact applications. These include the engineering-industrial-architectural field (materials, prototyping, building construction), the mathematical field (modeling and numerical simulations), the chemical-pharmaceutical field (bio-compatible systems and drug delivery), the medical field (models and prosthesis tailored to each single patient), the socio-economic field (creation and distribution of the technology, sustainability and business models), as well as in the field of human studies (cinematography and art history).

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silicon artereis, full color organ and skeletal models are among those produced at the University of Pavia lab

“As a consequence, 3D rapid prototyping is gaining interest not only in the industrial world but also in the academic one,” Professor Auricchio pointed out. “In fact, many laboratories and study programs dedicated to “Rapid Prototyping” and “Digital Factory” have been recently introduced in the world’s top universities. On a national level, there is a lack of reference centers for the applications of 3D technology in all of its branches.”

The proposed center is intended as a reference both at a national and international level, not only for the development of new technologies and printing materials, but also for the application of the developed tools.  The goal is to create a center on 3D printing with a strong professional and multidisciplinary character that derives from the participation of experts from different fields. Such a highly specialized imprint in many fields of rapid prototyping merged in a single reference center would represent a unique center of excellence in Italy.

I recently visited laboratory at the University of Pavia. On its premises students and researchers have access to several different technologies including industrial grade FFF from Leapfrog and 3ntr and full color binder jetting from 3D Systems Projet 460 machines. They also have access to Objet polyjet technology through and external affiliated center.

A cancerous growth produced in two separate prints through an Objet Eden system
A cancerous growth produced in two separate prints through an Objet Eden system

With all this technology available they have not wasted time. Professor Auricchio estimates that as many as 50% of surgical interventions now take advance of pre-surgical medical modeling, with an average reduction of operating room time equal to 15%, which alone is sufficient to justify any costs of 3D printing materials and machine usage.

Some of the models I was shown on my visit include a full color liver with veins and arteries, exact replicas of dog skulls and a human mandible that needed to be reconstructed after cancer removal. Another model, 3D printed in resin, presented a bladder with a cancerous growth (printed separately). One of the most interesting prints was an exact replica of the aorta artery, made in silicon. The production process involved using 3D printing to create the molds and then using silicon for the final replica. The size of it was incredible and also impossible to comprehend simply looking at a virtual 3D representation on a monitor.

These were just a small part of the models created in the lab so far, the only ones that the surgeons actually “returned” after using them. According to Professor Auricchio and his team, doctors are literally enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by physical medical modeling and the future is wide open. His analysis is supported by many industry analysts worldwide and the enthusiasm of the entire team clearly shows 3D printing is the right way to go for the University and beyond.

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