Open Source 3D Printing: Exploring Scientific and Medical Solutions

3D Printing is not a new thing to hear about. It is a very popular industry right now that began in the early 80s. But how different is Open Source 3D Printing from proprietary designs? How does this affect its applications in Science and Medicine? Let’s read on.

What is 3D Printing All About?

Just like a conventional computer printer is used to print in 2D on paper, the job of a 3D printer is to create actual three-dimensional objects, solidified from a digital 3D file, aided by a computer of course. They use different processes by adding materials layer by layer in most methods.

Materials can be in liquid or powder form meant to be fused together, to serve as input material for the 3D printer just like inkjet 2D printers require ink cartridges. The objects that are created can be of almost any geometrical shape.

A more industrial term for 3D Printing is Additive Manufacturing.

Why is 3D printing so useful?

3D Printing

3D Printing has limitless applications due to which it is so popular. Let’s briefly look into some of these applications, although our main focus will be on Applied Science and Medical Applications.

1. Rapid Prototyping

In 3D Printing, Rapid Prototyping is a process in which smaller parts of a larger device can be quickly manufactured for enhanced productivity, with the help of 3D CAD. This is a great way to test the usability of prototypes for industry standards, hence the term.

2. Vehicles

There are a wide variety of 3D printed manufacturing processes for aviation, automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding and more.

3. Environment

3D Printed coral structures are now being developed to save our dying coral reefs.

4. Construction

Parts of entire buildings can now be created with 3D Printing that can all be reassembled later for the construction of various architectures. You can now 3D Print your house in under a day!

5. Dentistry

Did you know that even teeth can be 3D Printed? Think of how accurately they can be designed to replace or repair teeth!

6. Gadgets and Tools

You can even 3D print your own customized gadgets and tools for personal use!

7. Organs

Yes, that’s correct, 3D Printing Research has now made so much progress that it is now also possible to recreate human organs ready for a transplant of patients who either have a liver, kidney, heart, lungs or any other vital organ that is damaged beyond “repair”.

Now that we have seen some of the various applications, let us now ponder on which of the following two approaches is more suitable for them:

Proprietary (Closed Source) 3D Printing

Proprietary 3D Printing, as the phrase suggests, uses proprietary software that does not enable access to source code for community-wide development. Any changes done on the hardware will also void your warranty if you happen to own a proprietary 3D Printer. If you need to change the way the printer works in order to customize it for your specific requirement, you are barred by a number of such issues.

If such rules are followed for any of the 3D Printing applications that we discussed in the above section, it becomes really difficult to focus on actual project objectives.

Proprietary 3D Printing can be really expensive, not just in terms of money, but also if you consider time, which is also quite valuable to consider while working on a 3D Printing project.

Open Source 3D Printing

Open Source 3D Printing eliminates all the issues we just discussed in the proprietary section. Not only does it reduce costs, it enables easier innovation to solve issues faced during 3D manufacturing.

Apparently, the phrase, “Open Source 3D Printing” is also gaining popularity as is evident with a simple search online.

It is now possible for users to completely go Open Source, making it possible to greatly reducing production time and manufacturing costs!

Examples of Applied Science and Medical Solutions Achieved with Open Source 3D Printing

We thought about which of these many applications is most significant for radically enhancing and sustaining the quality of our life and our planet, and hence we decided to specifically explore the Scientific and Medical Solutions to do just that.

So in this final and most important section, let us pick related applications that we just discussed and look into some examples in detail where we feel Open Source Approach is most necessary:

1. Saving Our Coral Reefs

3D Printed Coral Reefs developed by Reef Design Lab
3D Printed Coral Reefs developed by Reef Design Lab

Coral Reefs are an extremely important part of our planet’s biodiversity and they are dying.

3D Printed coral reefs is now a very promising initiative to help restore them. Reef Design Lab has recently made it possible to support coral life. The design of the 3D models involved in the project will be made Open Source so that researchers who want to contribute in the same can actively take part.

2. Replacement of Teeth

3D Printed teeth? Yes, that’s a definite possibility today! There’s also an interesting improvement in the design: These teeth are designed with material that is anti-bacterial in nature! This makes it possible to kill the bacteria responsible for tooth decay on contact of the food that you chew!

3. Bioprinting

A 3D Bioprinter is a device that requires “bio-ink” to be used as material to 3D Print bioengineered tissue.

The following short video describes the process of Bioprinting a human ear. Note how they do not use plastic or rubber but living tissue as a biomaterial!

The Open Bioprinting Initiative

As we learnt that Tissue Engineering is greatly driven by 3D Printing technology, we should also consider that every patient is different, and so it is necessary for an open platform that allows customized manufacturing for tissue and organ generation.

An Open System that enables such customized Printing of bio-materials that diverse in nature will make it much easier to conduct research in Tissue Engineering.

The Open Bioprinting Initiative was a step that addresses this same primary objective. The related paper is not Open Access. But for educational purpose, it has been made available on their GitHub repository named Papers.

The paper signifies how an Open Source multi-channel 3D Bioprinting system is important both in terms of Hardware and Software. It also mentions cost-effectiveness because the system is designed and integrated with an Open Source Approach to find optimal conditions for 3D Bioprinting.

The Quest for a Fully Functional Bioprinted Heart!

We all know how important the heart is for our health. A medical technology company named Biolife4D recently demonstrated their ability to 3D Bioprint Human Heart Tissue! This is a remarkable achievement!

They use living cells to bioprint biological structures. The patient’s own white blood cells were reprogrammed to create pluripotent stem cells and cardiac cells, wherein the process took a matter of days for a complete generation in the form of a cardiac patch.

Currently, their research involves the development of individual parts such as heart valves and blood vessels for the heart. Their ultimate objective at the moment is to create a fully functional bioprinted heart.

We looked up online for their Open Source repositories but were unable to find any. We hope they make some of their research Open Source in the future so that more academicians and researchers can collaboratively contribute towards developing a fully functional 3D Bioprinted Heart. Such an action would also greatly empower initiatives like Open Bioprinting.

Applied Nanotechnology for Organ Transplant

“The field of tissue engineering is advancing steadily, partly due to advancements in rapid prototyping technology. Even with increasing focus, successful complex tissue regeneration of vascularized bone, cartilage and the osteochondral interface remains largely illusive. This review examines current three-dimensional printing techniques and their application towards bone, cartilage and osteochondral regeneration. The importance of, and benefit to, nanomaterial integration is also highlighted with recent published examples. Early-stage successes and challenges of recent studies are discussed, with an outlook to future research in the related areas.”

Nowicki, M., Castro, N. J., Rao, R., Plesniak, M., & Zhang, L. G. (2017). Integrating three-dimensional printing and nanotechnology for musculoskeletal regeneration. Nanotechnology, 28(38), 382001. doi:10.1088/1361-6528/aa8351

In our previous Open Science article, we discussed the nanotech and open source topic in detail while mentioning this article in its summary. Nanotechnology and 3D Printing share a strong correlation.

We discussed materials that are used to create 3D objects via the printers. These materials can also be designed at the nanoscale.

Since the materials are designed from the bottom-up nanoscale, enabling three extremely necessary precision levels i.e. nano-micro-macro, it is now possible to retain properties like maximum strength with minimal weight. This means we can now adjust the elasticity, strength or hardness of such 3D Printed objects with high accuracy.

Such an extremely high accuracy is of utmost importance in the development of 3D Printed Human Organs, that can now actually make it possible to save countless lives. Tissue Engineering would be greatly enhanced and thus promote effective manufacturing of 3D printed bone, cartilage or osteochondral tissue.

That’s not all, as we have already seen how other vital organs are even more significant.

4. Drug Discovery

“The current achievements include multifunctional drug delivery systems with accelerated release characteristic, adjustable and personalized dosage forms, implants and phantoms corresponding to specific patient anatomy as well as cell-based materials for regenerative medicine.”

Jamróz, W., Szafraniec, J., Kurek, M., & Jachowicz, R. (2018). 3D Printing in Pharmaceutical and Medical Applications – Recent Achievements and Challenges. Pharmaceutical Research, 35(9). doi:10.1007/s11095-018-2454-x

We previously discussed why Open Source Pharma is said to be “Linux for Drugs”.  3D Printing strengthens that initiative because it allows greater flexibility, time-saving and manufacturing medicine with extreme precision. Such a drug discovery method makes use of 3D Printing’s basic method of layer-by-layer CAD in order to formulate drug materials with the correct dosage.

The FDA approved the first 3D Printed drug some years ago. 3D Printed Drug Development addresses the challenges of conventional manufacturing techniques in pharmaceutical units. The greater advantage lies in its far better ability to create quality drugs in terms of drug loading, drug release, drug stability and pharmaceutical dosage form stability, as described in this Open Access paper in much detail.


So in this extensive article covering 3D Printing, we started by briefly introducing you to the concept followed by understanding its significance with different examples of applications.

Further ahead, we differentiated between Proprietary and Open Source 3D Printing Models to understand the advantages of the latter.

Finally, we focused on the Scientific and Medical Solutions for Open Source Bioprinting by looking into initiatives for saving our corals, teeth replacement with anti-bacterial abilities, Bioprinting with focus on Open Source Bioprinting and Applied Nanotechnology for Organ Transplant. In our final subsection, we also highlighted the role of 3D Printing in Drug Discovery.

These are only some of the many applications of 3D Printing. We believe there is a need for Proprietary manufacturers to migrate towards Open Source Business Models that would promote better applicability for our planet.

What are your views? Do you think there should be more effort in Open Bioprinting and other 3D Printing Applications? Have you ever been involved with 3D Printing? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

About the author
Avimanyu Bandyopadhyay

Avimanyu Bandyopadhyay

Tech Nerd at It's FOSS | Doctoral Researcher on GPU-based Bioinformatics and author of <a href="">'Hands-On GPU Comput

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