If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s the value of a 3D model? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided they are hugely important and so created the 3D Print Exchange to help you tap this technology. This interactive website allows citizen scientists, researchers, students, and educators to search, browse, download, and share biomedical 3D print files, modeling tutorials, and other materials. NIH wants you and everyone you know participating in scientific discovery while also helping you to effectively communicate your ideas and knowledge to others by way of well-printed 3D models. “3D printing is helping to advance science at [NIH] and beyond,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. So, go online and get to it.

The Nuts and Bolts of 3D Printing

3D printers create solid objects by building up thin layers of material through an extrusion process. To understand the process, imagine a normal printer spinning out, in its usual manner, a whole stack of paper, page by page; visualize, though, the stack of pages forming a predefined shape, either solid or hollow. This, essentially, is how a 3D printer works and the reason it is so important is it can create almost any shape, including unusual biological forms such as bacteria. “The ability to design and print tangible models of pathogens, for example, can give researchers a fresh perspective on the diseases they study and open new and promising lines of investigation,” said Fauci.

The first step in the printing process is reading a design from a 3D printable file, some of which are freely available online at the 3D Print Exchange. The Exchange also features tools that convert scientific and clinical data into ready-to-print 3D files and offers video tutorials for new users wanting to create their own files and a discussion forum to promote collaboration. The site itself came about as a way for the NIH to share its own scientific models with other people who might benefit from them, while also establishing a resource to encourage more people to use 3D printing for science.

As of, well, now, the Exchange is the only source dedicated specifically to bioscientific 3D prints and encourages the development of models for, specifically, cells, bacteria, viruses, proteins, DNA, as well as anatomical models of organs, tissue, and body parts. Anyone who registers can download or share a file, though NIH will monitor the site and remove any inappropriate or irrelevant content.

“We hope that the 3D Print Exchange will expand interest and participation in this new and exciting field among scientists, educators and students,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of NIH. “3D printing is a potential game changer for medical research.” Learn more by watching this YouTube video: