This 3D ‘sci-fi technology’ is revolutionizing universities

UH is just one of many universities that have added 3D printers to their labs over the past few years. The Information Technology Center at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) installed the first on campus in 2005.

The printers are most often used to illustrate complex concepts in the classroom, but a handful of academics have begun to use them to facilitate their research. While plastic is the most common medium, Frankino said some printers can produce designs in metals, ceramics and even biological tissues.

For example, one of the NSM printers was used to build a series of small wind tunnels that one of Frankino’s Ph.D. students used to study fruit flies and their ability to adapt to new environments. He also used the printer to make smaller scale models of the wind tunnels to take to conferences and lectures as a visual aid to explain the research.

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, has used a printer to make accessories for the robotic exoskeletons he uses to help adults with paralysis, stroke or other movement disorders.

But his dreams are far bigger.

Contreras-Vidal’s research focuses on developing algorithms that read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement. He envisions using 3D printers to produce custom-designed exoskeletons for children with cerebral palsy.

The exoskeleton, guided by the brain-machine interface, could provide a form of therapy to treat the movement disorder, he said.

For now, many researchers say the printers’ greatest value is in creating models of complex concepts, both to help explain their research and as a teaching tool in their classrooms.

Chemist Ognjen Miljanic began using a 3D printer several years ago to illustrate some of the concepts his graduate classes were discussing.

He also has printed out models of his own work–the crystal molecules he works with are far too tiny for visitors to the lab to see, and the 3D models are great for presentations.

“For us, the impact on research, it’s not quite there yet,” he said. “The impact on teaching, it’s dramatic.”

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