Nearly everyone has heard about 3D printers and the amazing things they can do. But how many of us have ever seen one, or witnessed how they make their magic?
Recently a 3D printer was installed in the School of Kinesiology’s Human Sensorimotor Control Laboratory (HSCL). The only such printer currently in use in CEHD, the machine is being utilized for a grant project, “Wearable non-invasive neuromodulation technology for the symptomatic treatment of the voice disorder spasmodic dysphonia,” funded through the U of M’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and led by Jürgen Konczak, Ph.D., professor in the School of Kinesiology.
Spasmodic dysphonia (SD) is a disorder that causes the muscles inside the vocal folds to experience sudden, involuntary spasms, which interfere with the ability of the folds to vibrate and produce voice. People with SD may have occasional breaks in their voice every few sentences, or more often, may have spasms that occur every other word, making speech difficult to understand. Arash Mahnan, doctoral student and graduate researcher who is working on the project, explained that the printer is being used to help design parts for a collar that will be worn in field testing by subjects who have SD. The collar will produce short vibrations that can stimulate the larynx and may effectively reduce symptoms.
“We are designing a ‘one size fits all’ collar,” says Mahnan. “The 3D printer allows us to try multiple iterations of the design to see what will work, and do it faster and morecheaply.” Once the design is established, the collars can be manufactured using a tested specification and be ready for use in the study. “It would be much more expensive and time-consuming if we had to have each of our design ideas manufactured and tested,” he says.
Mahnan used to work at the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center at the U, and is familiar with the capabilities of the printer. “Many design companies use it to make production faster and cheaper,” he says. “You can build things that were at one time impossible to build.” HSCL’s 3D printer, which generates plastic parts from design specifications created in a software program, allows the research team to experiment with and tweak each part until they reach the desired result. At that point, the specifications are turned over to a machinist who builds the final product.
While HSCL’s printer output is plastic, some versions print metal or even wood or concrete. The possibilities and potential seem endless. “The printers are excellent when scale needs to be very precise,” says Mahnan. “Prototypes can be done and tested before we order the final product. The printer can do all this. I believe these printers will become a regular part of the research process.”