September Blog: My busiest month since starting my PhD

Writing these blogs is a catch-22. The more time I have to write the blogs, the less I have to write about. When I have loads of updates and events to write blogs on, I barely get a chance to sit at my desk to write them. This was definitely the case during the month of September as I have been so busy and am only getting around to writing the September blog now.

Since my last blog at the end of August, I have started studying a new module, teaching tutorials/labs as a teaching assistant, attended a 3D printing workshop, travelled to a manufacture exhibition, I did a school visit and set up an Instagram page for our 3D printer. September has definitely been my busiest month since starting the PhD!

I will start with the college-related updates. As I am doing a structured PhD I am required to study and pass exams for two taught modules (at least two, and more if I want to). This semester I am taking ‘General Microbiology’. I haven’t studied biology since the Leaving Cert and at that, we only spent one week studying microbiology. I am actually enjoying the module more than I anticipated. The lecturer does his best to make the classes interesting (which I imagine is difficult with 200+ students in the lecture) and the labs seem easy so far with a focus on understanding core concepts. I think this is important as many students (including myself during my undergrad) don’t understand ‘the basics’ of modules they take in college, even though they can pass the exam.

As part of my contract, I can teach up to six hours a week. This semester I am assisting with the materials half of a product design module. I sit in on the classes and give thoughts on student’s assignments that were assigned the previous week. As part of this I am delivering two lectures; one on ‘environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastics’ and a second on ‘Additive manufacturing/3D Printing’. I have been preparing the presentations for these and my lectures will be delivered in the next two weeks. I have been collecting samples from different 3D printing technologies this month to pass around the class as I talk through the different types.

Tensile samples printed on an Ultimaker FDM 3D printer

I really feel that I have been away from the office for the majority of September. I attended a ‘Point Of Care 3D printing’ in St. Thomas’ Hospital London. This event was sponsored by Materialise. I flew from Shannon to London the night before, stayed in a hotel and flew home again straight after the conference. I met some very interesting people at this event, some were in early stages of their career, like me. It was nice to chat to people in the same boat as me at a conference as I have felt much younger/much more inexperienced than others that I have chatted to at conferences in the past.

A few months ago, a science/physics teacher that I am friends with asked me to visit her school and talk to some of the students about 3D printing and what I do. I feel that the visit went really well, with loads of interesting questions from the class. I was actually surprised at the level the questions were at – it showed that they had understood majority of what I had been talking about and were genuinely interested in the technology. I hope they enjoyed the visit as much as I did.

Last week I attended the TCT show 2019 (Design-to-Manufacture Innovation). This exhibition was not just for 3D printing but Majority of people there were demonstrating their 3D printers, new 3D printing materials as well as launching brand new 3D printers. For this event, I travelled over to Birmingham and back in the same day. This is really only possible because the event is in the NEC, which is a two minute train from Birmingham airport. I flew back to Dublin and stayed in Dublin as I had three training days in the National Children’s Research Centre (NCRC, Crumlin) directly after this trip.

The NCRC part-fund my PhD, along with the Irish Research Council. My PhD mentor is the Research and Operational manager for the NCRC. She organised these training days for me and the other students that receive funding from the NCRC. As part of the training we covered grant writing, GDPR, health research regulations (HRRs), lay abstract writing, biosample storage, media training and good clinical practice training. I have mentioned this in previous blogs, but I really think now is the best time to get these training sessions done as I am just beginning my research project and these skills will be so important. I got to meet the other students who all had completely different PhD projects to mine. This was a great networking opportunity as well as being able to compare what is different in each of our universities. The others were from UCD, Trinity, NUIG and RCSI.

As well as everything else, this month I have also set up an Instagram account for our 3D printer/ my PhD project. We decided to name the printer Grey, so the Instagram account is simply named ‘Greys3DPrinting‘. I find the best way to explain the technologies are with time-lapses of parts being printed. As well, 3D printed models are so easy to understand when you can hold them and look at them from a range of angles. For this exact reason, I think it is worth setting up an Instagram account to upload relevant photos and videos of my project to. I will document interesting prints here (as well as trips to conferences and events) in real time but I will continue to write a blog once every month or so.

Summer School 2019 (Update)

Just over two months ago, I wrote a blog about the summer school I attended to receive the Certificate in Generic & Transferable Research skills as part of my PhD. I had completed the residential week just before writing the first blog. This involved workshops for the six modules I had opted to take, as well as a few extra talks in intellectual property, research funding, grant writing and entrepreneurship. At the time of writing the first blog I thought I had most of the summer school work done by attending the residential week, however, the assignments turned out to be the bulk of the work.

Since writing the initial summer school blog, I have completed all of these assignments. We had six modules (3 credits each), each module had assignments to follow in order to complete the module. The modules are pass/fail and no grades are given. If you fail a module you must repeat it the following year. The 12 weeks following the residential week were split into three 4-week blocks, each block allowed time to complete assignments for two full modules. These assignments had a nice amount of variety including group project presentations, short essays, creating opinion posts on a forum and responding to others’ posts, completing online courses, filling in a research ethics application and writing a brief literature review. I found the assignments relevant to the course and genuinely really useful for us early-career researchers.

At the beginning of the residential week it was stated that two days a week should be devoted to completing the assignments. I have been lucky enough that I have not had a very busy summer in terms of my own project, and I have mainly been focusing on the summer school assignments. I am also fortunate enough that my supervisor realized the level of commitment needed for the summer school and let me prioritize these assignments. I found myself spending at least half of each week completing assignments. I know that others have really struggled to meet deadlines and have been juggling their own research work as well as the assignments.

I would advise new PhD students to sign up for summer school in their first summer if possible. If you are thinking of taking the summer school, be prepared to give 3 days a week to complete the assignments. As well as being prepared for this yourself, make sure your supervisor realizes that, by permitting you to attend the summer school, this will be your priority for the summer (12 weeks out of 4 years is not that much when you think about it). I definitely recommend all PhD students to at least attend the residential week as there was an enormous amount of valuable information provided. The UL summer school is obviously run with the intentions of creating better researchers by preparing them early on in their careers, rather than just making up 18 credits in order to graduate.

My first conference – 3D Printing in Medicine

As usual, I am just going to mention a quick update on my own work before I can talk about the fun stuff that I got up to in the month of June.

This week I have submitted the third draft of the radiopacity project paper to my supervisors (I have three supervisors and one enterprise partner mentor as part of my PhD supervisory team). It is only now that I feel that the paper is actually coming together nicely, in a coherent and easy-to-read style. Honestly, I was feeling quite unmotivated the past few weeks as I have been mainly desk-bound and trying to finish off this paper, when I would prefer to be in the lab. But, Wednesday evening I came across an interesting citation for a paper. It sounded like they were doing quite similar work to us in the radiopacity project, even with the same make of printer. This worried me, as our paper is not yet published and this paper was out since 2016 (and would take away from the novelty of our hard work). Upon reading the paper,to my relief, this other group were doing very primitive work in comparison to what we have in the pipeline, and our research was under real no threat!

To give a simple comparison, we are suspending particles that show up on x-ray within the 3D printing ink, printing components with this ink that then are visible under x-ray. This other group, were 3D printing as normal and then rubbing particles with similar properties on the outside of the printed parts. Same end goal, but their method was quite messy and ours would be much more suitable to medical devices.

Materialise Conference, Leuven

So, I was sent to my first conference last month, titled ‘3D printing in Medicine’, which was run by Materialise in Leuven, Belgium. Materialise were one of the first 3D printing companies, and began when the CEO Wilfried Vancraen realised the potential of 3D printing and bought his own printer. Now, Materialise are the largest 3D printing company, and are focused primarily on software, medical and manufacturing.

This was a two-day conference. Day One consisted of talks from the experts in 3D printing in medicine and a visit to Health House, as well as plenty of coffee/tea breaks, lunch, dinner and drinks – where all the real networking happens. Day Two was made up of a Mimics workshop (learning how to segment medical scans before they can be 3D printed) and a full tour of Materialise HQ).

The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Jonathan Morris, who is the Director of the 3D Printing Anatomy Modelling Lab, Mayo Clinic, USA. Jonathan spoke about how 3D printing has revolutionised radiology in their hospital – mainly in terms of 3D printed models for surgeons to be able to see the anatomy before operating on a patient. Once the surgeons use 3D printed models to plan a surgery, they want to continue using these models for future surgeries, as it gives them an opportunity to literally see regions of interest (complicated vascular structures, tumours within an organ), whereas they usually would not learn this much detail until the patient was already on the operating table. Even though medical scans are of good quality, it takes skill, practice and some mental gymnastics to visualise the 3D anatomy from what is on a 2D screen in front of you – and this is where a 3D printed model makes surgical planning much easier.

Cutting guides are also frequently used. This involves looking at a 3D virtual model of the area of interest (Femur, for example), deciding where on this model is best to make cuts, and creating a cutting guide based on this. The cutting guide is then 3D printed, sterilised and taken into surgery. The surgeon already knows exactly where to place the cutting tools before the operation begins. The guides are placed in the predetermined position and the cutting process is simplified – less time, fewer tools required and most importantly, better surgical outcomes.

The evening part of day one was very interesting. Health House, Leuven, is a unique experience, looking at the future of healthcare and how growing technology will impact this future. This is an interactive, hands-on tour, following the timeline of ‘pre-conception to old age’ and the disease and illnesses that a person might come into contact with during their lifetime. The focus of this tour is how the healthcare of the future might better prevent/monitor these in the future with growing technology.

The highlight of the two days for me, was the tour of Materialise HQ. Materialise seem to have a few printers of each 3D printing technology (Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering, FDM, Polyjet, Multi-jet fusion, Direct Metal Laser Sintering), as well as a ‘mammoth’ SLA 3D printer which contains a huge VAT of photocurable resin (as in normal SLA) but the dimensions are big enough to print an entire car in a single print (which they have done!). We were brought on a loop around the factory, and most 3D printers had a window so we could look into the print beds and watch the printing take place. I have to compare it to being Charlie in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ on the Materialise factory tour – I must have been annoying the tour guide with all of my questions. There is an entire room full of everyday objects that had been 3D printed; coffee tables, chairs, lampshades. The lampshades were surprisingly impressive..

There is a virtual tour of Materialise HQ here.

I met some very interesting people at the networking breaks on both days. There was a huge variety of people there – from people starting out in their careers (like me) to people that have already successfully set up 3D printers in hospitals around the world and are now teaching the rest how to follow suit – and why it will literally revolutionise healthcare. There were people from a range of disciplines in attendance, including material science, radiology, plastic surgery, cardiology, orthopaedic surgery, gynaecology, software development, biomedical engineering, dentistry and medical physics. I think it is important for such diversity at these events as it keeps it very interesting and networking has the potential to lead to interdisciplinary connections in areas that you would never think of applying your own research.

The common conversation starter at the networking breaks was ‘and what do you do?’ – which I would imagine is quite common at these type of events. I ended up explaining my own research to plenty of people (and also taking in theirs). Most people seemed genuinely interested in the projects that I am working on, which is a good sign for when we are publishing this work! Overall I had a great time at my first conference, and would highly recommend Materialise-run conferences in the future.

May 2019: MedTech and summer school

May was quite a busy month. I finished a second draft of the paper that I am currently writing, travelled to Med-Tech Innovation Expo in Birmingham, and attended a week-long summer school in UL.

Med-Tech Birmingham 2019

Med-Tech was my first trip as part of the PhD. I travelled with one of my supervisors (Kevin), leaving Limerick at 6am. Our flight was 10:35am from Dublin, and we arrived in Birmingham before 12. The exhibition centre was a 2 minute train journey from the airport, allowing us to return home on the same day. We first had a look through all stands, and then went back to speak to people we were most interested in. My highlights of the event were Tritech, the Create Education project, and Paragon. All of these stands were related to 3D printing, but the applications of each group are quite different.

Tritech sell 3D printers, including the Connex 500 printer that I use for my research. It was interesting to see the capabilities of the new printers, which can hold more cartridges at once, allowing multiple materials to be printed at the same time, whereas the Connex 500 has a limit of two materials (which is still really good). The option to have more cartridges in the printer at once would save material, as a lot of material is wasted during material changeovers.

Photo of the Tritech 3D stand at Med-Tech, mostly anatomical models made from multiple materials in one single print

The Create Education Project is an initiative to allow schools across the UK to borrow 3D printers, to bring 3D printing technology to the classroom, for free. They also provide free lesson plans and project ideas on their website. This is a great initiative to give students the opportunity to learn about 3D printing and make their own parts. I would love to see similar projects set up for schools in Ireland.

Paragon had interesting samples at their stand – there were three/four samples of the same material but completely different mechanical properties due to the structure. Some were hard to compress, others compressed easily. These parts were printed using Digital Light Synthesis (DLS), and show how diverse 3D printed parts can be, even if only using one material. Each structure could be used for an entirely different application.

Photo of the range of structures printed by Paragon

Summer School 2019

I also attended summer school last month. As I am doing a structured PhD, I am required to undertake 30 taught modules (which would usually be studied in the first two years of a PhD) plus my PhD thesis. 12/30 of these credits are earned by doing specialist modules (closely linked with my PhD topic) and 18/30 credits are earned by doing Generic & Transferrable Research Skills (modules that would benefit all PhD students as they can apply the skills to their own specific research). As part of the summer school, I took 6 x 3 credit modules, which will add up to the total amount of credits for the GTRS portion of my structured PhD.

The modules I studied for summer school were as follows:

  1. Research Networking
  2. Developing Ideas & Arguments: Writing into Academic Communities
  3. Planning Research and Publication
  4. Digital Research Management
  5. Research Ethics
  6. Research Integrity

To be honest, I signed up for the summer school to get the credits I need to graduate, however, I was pleasantly surprised with everything that I learned during the week. The module I found most interesting was Research Integrity. We were introduced to a range of case studies, which showed examples of fraud, misconduct, plagiarism and data falsification in research. It is interesting to see how far some researchers have gone to increase their amount of publications, at any cause. Most researchers blamed the ‘publish or perish’ attitude in academia and the pressure to produce good results.

Another module that I enjoyed was research networking. In the past, some of the most successful academics were the people best at making connections and collaborations in interdisciplinary areas. Now, there is a huge focus on teaching up-and-coming academics how to network effectively, from the very beginning of their career.

I know I will make use of (at least parts of) all six modules during my PhD and even later on in my career. The summer school was definitely worth doing, and I would recommend it to non-structured PhD students also.

Research plans vs reality

This week I have done the final few prints for the radiopacity project. I have been working on this project since June and it is satisfying to see how far the project has come since then. The paper is also coming together nicely, and I am excited for when I can post the results of the project.

In research, things rarely happen as originally planned, often due to completely unforeseen factors. I have decided to focus this blog on how real timelines are often quite different to the plan. This week was my second time ‘hacking the printer’ on my own, and this time I was much more confident. This week, I had three things to print:

  1. Print a hand with radiopaque bone (within TangoBlack, a black rubber material to represent the soft tissue of the hand)
  2. Samples for mechanical testing the material (5 of each)
  3. Samples for a second mechanical test (5 of each)

The hand was the biggest job (4 hours) and I originally planned to get the two mechanical testing samples done in a second print job (1.5 hours). Here is my original plan for the two days:

This plan wasn’t being super optimistic, either. I gave myself extra time to make the material and set up before printing, with an hour between prints to clean and setup for the next print. Friday was block booked for cleaning and getting the printer back to full working condition for Monday morning. ‘Test and clean’ from the timeline means checking how badly the printer had been blocked up while printing the radiopaque material, unblocking the print heads and making sure there are no issues before beginning the next print. This is the part that I had rushed in previous prints, cutting corners and continuing with the print even though heads were blocked, because I thought that ignoring one or two blocked heads (out of ~100) would not affect the end results. This was a huge lesson for me, as I now know that this step is crucial. One or two blocked heads at the start can ruin an entire print and result in repeating the entire job, which in the long run, is more time consuming, and also a waste of material. I made sure to mix my material after any break in printing – as I had not done this last time. This time, after mixing well before every print, there were hardly any blockages.

So, this time I did not cut corners with the cleaning step, but the real timeline was still quite different from the planned timeline:

The ‘reality’ timeline was going perfectly (almost too perfectly!) until 13:30, when I realised the hand part was printing but no bone was showing up. I cancelled the job and checked the printer for blockages, but there were no print heads blocked. We had this problem a few months previously, and to be honest we are still unsure what went wrong. The 3D hand file (consisting of two parts – the bone and the surrounding soft tissue) successfully printed with clear ink as the skeleton and black rubber material as the soft tissue, but would not print the radiopaque material. Eventually, I decided to swap the cartridge tag to trick the printer into thinking that it was printing just clear ink (as I knew it had already successfully printed the skeleton from this cartridge earlier in the week). I tried a tiny hand first – ‘Test print’ in the ‘reality’ plan (shown below, the hand is less than 1cm long). This print was successful so I started the print of the hand at 18:00 and went home while it continued to print.

Print 3, during printing

While trying to resolve the hand issue, I split ‘print 2’ from the plan into two parts. I thought two smaller prints would make more sense because if the print failed again, there would be less material wasted. The first small print (Print 2 in the reality plan) was successful but the second (Print 3) was cancelled as parts did not reach the correct height. By 16:00 I had the idea about swapping ID tags so the hand skeleton could be printed, so I abandoned print 3 and printed the hand.

The following morning I saw that the hand was printed successfully. I removed the hand from the print tray, made up some more material, and attempted print 3 again – the final print. Again, this print did not reach the height that it was supposed to. I tried again, and this time the print was fine.

Overall, I was very happy with these two days of work. Even though the printing took nearly twice as long as I had planned, I still managed to get them all done before the weekend. Most importantly, there was very little blocked heads during the print – I am going to credit this to the fact that I took more time to set up/ clean the printer before plowing ahead and printing as I had done previously. I also think that mixing the ink before every single print helped to reduce blockages, and was worth the extra time as this reduced the clean up time after each print. I look forward to getting the hand x-rayed next week to show exact radiopacity of the print!

Life-size hands:
The hand on the left is the failed attempt, as the radiopaque ink never printed (you can see the print is incomplete as it was cancelled).
The hand on the right is the successful print with visible bone inside

Polyjet Technology

The last few weeks have been primarily focused on producing a paper, summarising the work I have done since I started with the Design Factors research group. This project involves creating a radiopaque 3D printing ink (parts printed with this ink will show up on x-ray whereas they usually would not). I have been collecting my results, and putting all of this data into the paper, as well as the methods I used to obtain these results. I will do an entire blog about this paper when it has been published – there are some really cool images to show off the work (*spoiler alert: it was successful!). Firstly, I would like to explain the workings of the printer and printing technology before getting into the details of the project.

Last time I wrote about the printer itself, so this blog will focus on the technology of 3D printing that I am using during my project: Polyjet Technology (photopolymer jetting). A broader term for this technology is Material Jetting. Polyjetting is Stratasys‘ variation of this 3D printing method.

Polyjet is one 3D printing technology (there are many more and these will be covered in future posts). The Connex 500 is the printer that I have access to for my research. This printer makes use of polyjet technology, which involves drops of ink being placed (similar to the below cartoon, but directly onto the print bed/ previous layer, and drops are not as continuous as they appear in the animation). Polyjetting is a type of ‘Material jetting’.

From: Design World Online

Polyjet uses liquid ink to create solid objects. The liquid ink is photocurable, meaning that it solidifies when it is exposed to light (specifically ultraviolet light). First, the ink is heated to a specific temperature, reducing viscosity for best flow properties for the ink. For the Connex 500, this is 70°C. After each layer has been deposited, the UV lamp travels over the print bed and cures all liquid ink droplets, creating the next solid layer of the object.

From: 3D Hubs

The cartoon above illustrates how an ‘X‘ would be printed. The red colour with white fill is the solid object, the grey lines outside this shape indicate the support material (this was explained in the previous post). It is worth noting that there is no support material above the ‘X‘, as there is nothing to support, and it would be wasteful. The print bed lowers as the component is printed, so the print heads work in an x-y plane.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages associated with polyjet technology. One main advantage for polyjet is the dimensional accuracy, great surface finish and precision when printing. Even though a limitation of 3D printing, in general, is a lack of available material, polyjet has a range of colours, flexibility/rigidity and optical transparency/opacity properties. An added advantage of the Connex 500 is the multi-material feature, allowing us to combine two inks to further enhance these properties.

A significant disadvantage of polyjet is poor mechanical properties, but this goes for 3D printing in general. As objects are printed in layers, there is significant weakness between these layers, so print orientation is important. As well as this, polyjet-printed parts’ mechanical properties degrade over time due to their photosensitivity. Polyjet inks and print heads are quite expensive, which may deter some users, but if you are looking for high-quality parts it is worth the extra costs.

Polyjet is ideal for small parts/prototypes. I often use it for fixtures or molds. For example, when I was mixing small glass vials by ultrasonication, the vials were vibrating and crashing into each other, leading to the vials cracking. I printed a divider to keep the vials separated and it worked perfectly (images below). There is ongoing medical device development within the research group and the printer is often used in the early device design/prototype stage.

Hopefully I will have the paper out soon and I can go into greater detail about it here, as well as disscussing my new project! There is a huge amount of overlap between the radiopacity project and my PhD project, so it has been quite a smooth transition for me, so far!

The Connex

This blog is coming a little later than I would have liked, but this week has been super busy. As mentioned in the first blog, I am currently writing up a paper for publication, as well as completing the material property testing for same.

The 3D printer that I have access to for my project is the Connex 500. This printer can print two materials at the same time (in different combinations to vary properties, or printing one material within another). The printer is shown in the first image below. The print tray, where components are actually printed is under the top panel. The two material cartridges are inside the door on the right and the two support material cartridges are inside the door on the left. This is clearer in the image on the right, with all panels and doors fully opened.

The build tray is shown below. The print head location is circled but as they are all downward facing they cannot be seen in full detail.

This printer uses Polyjet technology and uses liquid ink. There are two print heads per material, each has ~100 openings to allow droplets to be deposited to build up each layer. A layer of the liquid is immediately cured by UV lamps and becomes solid. This layer then acts as a foundation for subsequent layers. Printing a solid block is easy, as the first layer is deposited and cured on the print tray, the second layer printed on the first, third layer printed on the second, and so on.. But, in cases where the object is not a completely solid shape (for example, the hand skeleton below), support material is needed to create the same solid foundation for the next layers. This material is waxy in texture and is washed off as part of the post-processing. The hand was printed from the bottom up, in the same orientation as in the photo below. In this particular print, there would have been four or five times more support material used than the material that the hand is made from.

The image on the left below shows the hand being printed. The black material is the bone, white-ish material is the soft tissue and the dark grey is the support material. The second image shows the hand with support material removed.

This 3D printer was one of the more expensive printers on the market when it was released in 2014, selling for $250,000! The Connex’s main selling point is that it can print multi-material parts. It has very thin layers (as thin as 0.16mm, but more commonly we use 0.32mm) which give very good print resolution. One of Stratasys’ materials is a transparent, biocompatible ink (MED610) for medical and dental use; another major factor when the research group were deciding to get this particular printer.

The size and cost of the machine might lead you to believe that it is complicated to operate, but in fact it is quite straightforward. The software is very user friendly and the printer itself is easy to operate. I have been working on the machine for a few months now and I feel like I have learned how to do most tasks in relation to printing and general maintenance.

I am now able to get the printer back to perfect working conditions after taking it apart (to do test prints with the material I am developing as part of my research project). At the start it was quite intimidating to mess with such an expensive piece of equipment, but after a few successful attempts of putting it all back together I am getting more confident. This week was my first time ‘hacking the printer’ on my own. Even though the print quality was not as good as I would have liked (the print heads blocked up significantly), I learned an awful lot working by myself. Second time ‘hacking the printer’ on my own should give better results!

Introduction

First, a little bit of background on how I got to where I am..

I have been studying in UL for the past 6 years. I began my undergrad in Applied Physics in September 2013. I graduated in May 2017 and went straight into a taught masters (Biomedical Device Materials).

My favourite elements of both my undergrad and Masters were the research projects (both materials related – one was on printing a material for orthopaedics that would stimulate bone growth once grafted, the second was developing a material that bacteria could not adhere to). I enjoyed beginning a new project, immersing myself in all of this new information and slowly becoming familiar with this new area of science. I enjoyed the lab element also – running a multitude of tests and again, building up the knowledge of this relatively new field. It was quite satisfying to have built up a project and compile all of the project background, experimental data, results and conclusions in one neat document. This feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is why I decided to pursue a PhD in material science. I am excited to start a new project, immerse myself in it fully and eventually become an expert in this field.

As I was coming to the end of the Masters I decided I would like to remain in research and I began looking for possible projects. During the material science masters I had done an assignment on an area of my own choice. I chose to write about ‘3D Printing in Medicine’. As part of this assignment, I learned the variety of areas that 3D printing can be used. I was surprised at the range of areas that 3D printing was already being applied to in medicine, such as anatomical models for planning surgeries, explaining procedures to patients, educating medical students, prototypes for medical devices, small medical devices, and of course, prosthesis.

I had decided that this (relatively) new and exciting area that I was now fascinated by was the area I wanted to study. I was shocked to find out that there was a research group in UL that had a multi-material 3D printer (it can place 2 materials at the same time, building components within other components). As a long shot, I emailed the head of the research group and asked if he had any material science related projects that I could get involved with. To my disbelief, he scheduled a meeting with me for the following week. I met up with the head of the research group and a second member of the group. I was given a tour of the lab and shown the printer and a variety of printed components – extremely exciting stuff! They had a project that they thought I would be a good fit for – suspending additives in the liquid 3D printing resin to change the properties of the final components. The property they were trying to enhance was radiopacity (making the component show up on x-rays, wheres the ordinary ink does not). I also felt that I was a good fit for this, given my background in physics and material science (along with my new found love for 3D printing). I was offered a research position working on this project for the summer. Needless to say, I accepted!

At the end of the summer, it was decided that we would apply for PhD funding for me to continue working with 3D printing and with the same research group (https://designfactors.ie/), but in a slightly different area. This time, instead of enhancing the radiopaque properties on the 3D printing ink, I would be making the printed components antimicrobial. Specifically, these antimicrobial components would be small accessories for PEG feeding tubes, specifically for children with Cystic Fibrosis. PEG tubes are supposed to be a short-term feeding solution, but often are left longer than this (if the child is too sick to go for surgery to replace the tube). This long-term use can result in degradation which leads to leaks/cracks in the PEG line. PEG feeding tubes are basically ideal incubators for micro-organisms (37 degrees Celsius, humid conditions) and are outside of the reach of the patient’s immune system, which increases risk of infection (which poses an extreme risk for patients with Cystic Fibrosis). The idea of a repair accessory/ device which is inherently anti-microbial was crafted to combat these two issues with PEG tubes.

I applied for funding from the Irish Research Council (under the Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme) and this application was successful! Our enterprise partner is the National Children’s Research Centre – who have a high quality Cystic Fibrosis research team and have ongoing research in infection and immunity. I look forward to working alongside this partner.

So, we have been working on the radiopacity project since June (my summer internship was extended to Christmas, and then until the end of February). My PhD official start date was 1st March 2019, and I am now in between wrapping up the radiopacity project (hopefully publishing a paper on the key findings shortly) and kicking off the PhD project!