Virtually Real

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New University of Iowa Group Focuses on 3-D Printing...and More

When President Barak Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address referred to 3D printing as one of several technologies helping to re-start U.S. manufacturing, it got people’s attention nationwide.

Some of that attention is being focused on researchers at the University of Iowa College of Engineering’s Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD) who have formed a new, interdisciplinary manufacturing venture called the Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTech) group.

One of the group’s two focus activities is electronics manufacturing, including the printed circuit boards found in hundreds of devices ranging from guided missiles to toasters. The other is 3D printing, which is being used worldwide to produce everything from chocolate candy to plastic toys to human organs.

It’s a combination of activities that AMTech co-director Tim Marler says finds his group in the right place at the right time.

“When you look at the business environment nationwide and at CCAD, it’s a perfect time for the beginning of AMTech and the re-birth of U.S. manufacturing,” he says.

By now, you’ve probably heard that 3D printing has been used for years in factories to make aircraft parts, in college design classes to make plastic toys and in many other settings. But just what is 3D printing?

In short, it’s a system that creates objects by lacquering, or printing, one layer on top of another. First, a computer software program analyzes a desired object and visually divides it into thin layers. Then, at the push of a button, the computer program directs the printer to spray successive layers of a pre-determined substance—ranging from ink to plastic to chocolate and more—in layers to create a solid object.

According to AMTech co-director Ibrahim Ozbolat, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and head of the biomanufacturing laboratory, the “ink” in the UI printer is made of human cells and the goal of AMTech’s 3D printing is distinctive and unlike any other being done in the state of Iowa.

“Our goal is to create a functioning human pancreas 5 to 10 years from now,” says Ozbolat, an Olympic award-winning mathematics student while in high school in his native Turkey.

He explains that the first step is to create, during the next two to three years, the part of the pancreas that produces the body’s supply of insulin. Insulin controls blood sugar levels and without it, a person develops diabetes. Next, clinical trials will follow, with patients donating their own cells, which are cultured and from which the 3D insulin-producing pancreas is printed.

Individuals will receive their organs as implants in a convenient location, such as under the skin on the arm.
Not only is the objective of printing a human pancreas distinctive, but also the printer that will be used to create the human organ is unlike any other printer in the world.

Howard Chen, doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, created the printer from scratch in about six months using a design written under the supervision of Ozbolat. Chen, who grew up playing with Lego® bricks, says his invention was an extension of play.

“Building and working on the 3D printer is fun,” says Chen. “It’s just a grown-up version of playing with Legos® . I get paid to play with Legos®  all day long.”

Dr. Yin Yu, physician and biomedical engineering graduate student, brings essential medical expertise to AMTech by preparing the 3D printer’s ink—a mixture of human cells, tissue spheroids and alginate, a substance derived from seaweed and long used in biological research, the food industry and many other fields. He is helping to perfect a process in which printed tissue will be supported by printed blood vessels. But even Yu admits he initially was surprised by the audacious goal of the 3D printing team.

“It sounded crazy when I first heard of it,” he says. “We’re using a printer to make human organs.”

To understand the uniqueness of the UI printer, you should know that printers capable of laying down multicellular structures have been around for about 10 years. But only the UI printer can perform the feat using multiple arms.
“Having multiple arms means that two or more arms can move as independently as the arms on the human body,” says Ozbolat. “The major advantage of the multi-arm bioprinter is that while one arm is making blood vessels, the other arm can be printing tissue-specific cells in between the blood vessels.”

“Bioprinters in some other places have one arm with multiple heads that can also be used to print multiple materials, but not concurrently. Because managing the arms without collision is difficult, other researchers have been using simpler configurations in terms of motion,” Ozbolat says. “This capability could significantly reduce the time needed to fabricate the organ.”

Ozbolat notes that at some future date when bioprinted organs have become routine replacements for damaged and diseased human organs, the time required to produce replacements could become very important. That’s because at any given time, thousands of people in the United States are awaiting organ transplants, but only a fraction successfully receive a replacement organ.

If the AMTech group achieves its goal of printing a human pancreas and significantly reduces the time needed to prepare organs for transplant, then the group could reduce or even eliminate the need for organ donor waiting lists.

When asked what challenges lie on the horizon and beyond the goal of creating a human pancreas, Ozbolat notes that pacemakers implanted under the skin of individuals with heart abnormalities have a limited battery life. It would be good, he says, to 3D-print a living replacement for the part of the heart that gives an electrical stimulus to the heart, thus entirely eliminating the need for a pacemaker. It can be done, he says.

Meanwhile, down the hall in the engineering research facility housing CCAD, researchers are working on the other half of the AMTech enterprise.

AMTech co-director Marler says that although it isn’t as dramatic as creating a human organ, electromechanical systems—the thrust he directs—is likely to have a significant impact on manufacturing.

“We want to simulate, test, and analyze circuit boards. That may not sound exciting, but circuit boards show up in cell phones, toasters, and missiles. Nearly everything that uses electricity today has at least one circuit board,” says Marler, who notes that his mathematics and mechanical engineering background led him to simulation studies.

“You don’t get many test cases with a missile,” he adds. In fact, the current focus of the electronics manufacturing team grew out of a need expressed by the U.S. Department of Defense for a faster and cheaper way to design, test and analyze circuit boards in its systems, including missiles. In response,
CCAD’s renowned Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program, where Marler is an assistant director, developed a virtual testing program called PREVIEW (Predictive Environment forVisualization of Electromechanical Virtual Validation).

What does that mean in practical terms? According to two UI undergraduate students who are  working to improve PREVIEW, it means that AMTech may forever change the way electronic devices are  manufactured and tested. The two electrical and computer engineering majors sit in front of 3D color computers where they can view circuit boards from different angles and test them with respect to electromagnetic interference, reliability and thermal properties.

They can even “swap-out” parts for cheaper components and test how the modified board would work—all without touching a real circuit board.

Ben Goerdt, a junior, says, “Lots of companies have aging circuit boards that are hard to maintain. We can pinpoint where future problem might arise.”

Senior Ben Weintraub says PREVIEW is a far cry from testing by hand, the way it’s done at most companies.
“We can conduct reliability tests between multiple circuit boards, and most computers have multiple circuit boards. Doing all of this on a computer saves time and money,” says Weintraub.

Herm Reininga, AMTech advisor, Director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator and longtime Senior Vice President of Operations for Rockwell Collins, says that the manufacturing group may change the entire electronics industry.

“A key phrase in industry is ‘time to market.’ That means focusing on the time it takes to bring a product from initial design to the marketplace,” says Reininga, who earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial Engineering from the UI College of Engineering, is a member of the college’s Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy, and is a Leadership Council member of Next Generation Manufacturing
Technology Initiative.

“Industry generally has three steps after design before a product comes to market. Testing is one of those steps and here at AMTech we can virtually test each part and component, so we are shortening the time to market. In addition, about 60 percent of electronics labor cost lies in testing, so we are lowering costs, too,” he says.

In summarizing AMTech’s role in the revitalization of U.S. manufacturing, Marler says the nation has learned that it makes sense to be involved in manufacturing, rather than outsourcing and trying to retain intellectual property.

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, we have started to see modeling and simulation used in product manufacturing. Today, there’s a strong interest in bringing some of that manufacturing back to the
United States,” he says.

He says Americans learned that when they sent manufacturing out of the country, they inadvertently sent something else along with it—the ability to learn from your mistakes and to innovate.

“One problem with shipping your manufacturing overseas is that other people can reverse-engineer your product and learn how to build it better. Another is that new ideas come from the manufacturing process that takes place on the factory floor,” he says, adding that each manufacturing job requires from four to six
support jobs.

“America’s recognition of these two facts alone makes this a perfect time to be involved in advanced manufacturing technology,” Marler says.

In addition to receiving support from the National Institutes of Health for the artificial pancreas research, AMTech partners include the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Learn more about AMTech at