The military wants ruggedized and portable 3D printers that can be used in the field to fabricate medical tools and biomaterials as needed...
Can 3D printers treat soldiers on the battlefield? Yes — sort of. A recent pilot program conducted by the Uniformed Services University (USU) of the Health Sciences shows that 3D printers can be deployed in desert and remote environments to fabricate medical tools and biomaterials, where it’s not practical to have soldiers carry hundreds of medical supplies in their packs.
The pilot program, called Fabrication in Austere Environments, was developed under USU’s federally-funded 4-Dimensional Bioprinting, Biofabrication, and Biomanufactuing (4D Bio3) Program, along with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Geneva Foundation as well as two manufacturers — 3D printer maker NScrypt, Inc. and commercial space company Techshot, Inc. The goal is to fabricate medical products and tissues in harsh environments with a ruggedized 3D printer. Announced in 2018, the five-year program is tasked with researching, developing, and applying new bioprinting, biofabrication, and biomanufacturing technologies.
“USU has been an important partner for cellular work, bioprinting work, and sensor work. We are teaming with them because they are experts in biological and medical training, research and testing. They are naturally connected to the warfighter and have a deep understanding of the needs, issues, and challenges that caregivers with diverse training levels are up against,” said Dr. Kenneth Church, nScrypt’s CEO.
“Together we are making a difference, together we are challenging the boundaries, and together we are envisioning and executing how to move the critical care closer to the golden hour, which will not only save lives, but provide a more complete recovery,” he added.
The first 3D printer deployed and tested in harsh environments was nScrypt’s heavier and larger ruggedized 3D bioprinter, called nRugged, which was developed for the U.S. Army.
“ABAT [Austere BioAssembly Tool] or nRugged is a lightweight and ruggedized bioprinter that was custom built by nScrypt that was based off of the [Techshot’s] BioFabrication Facility (BFF) [3D bioprinter] that is on the International Space Station (ISS),” said Church. “It is made out of a carbon fiber material and is mostly used for DoD [Department of Defense] applications. This printer is configurable for printing biologics and non-biologics. It has the capability to print with any of our gizmos (Smartpump, nFD, nMill, and nPnP360). We can print over 10,000 commercial materials with this tool and it can be used for a plethora of different applications.”
nScrypt has worked with the U.S. Army on 3D printers for austere environments for several years, explained Church. “nRugged was specifically developed in partnership with West Point (Lt. Col. Jason Barnhill) and USU/4D Bio3 and the Geneva Foundation.”
The nScrypt 3D bioprinter, as part of the company’s Factory in a Tool (FIT), can be configured to do both 3D printing and bioprinting.
nRugged has “four tools that can change automatically,” said Church. Swapping out with other tools can be done if needed, “but these four tools provide mechanical, electrical, and biological properties,” he added.
Field tests have included 3D printing a scalpel handle and a surgical model of a T9 vertebrae as well as bioprinted bioactive bandages and meniscus.
The nRugged printer has demonstrated a variety of electronic sensor structures and structural bandages with antibiotic layers, said Church. “We have also printed diverse 3D structures that look and feel like bone. These are biocompatible materials that are implantable.”
The next step is to develop a smaller and lighter version that can fit in a soldier’s pack. Church said the plan is to make something “light and one-man portable” as well as to make a larger 3D printer “but hopefully still light.”
Some of the work ahead includes continuing to develop sensors and sensor systems using the nScrypt machines as well as implementing sensor systems in the 3D printers.
“If you precisely place diverse materials down to micron precision, you can make truly functional electronic structures. These electronic structures could be sensors with a Bluetooth comms in any shape or you could make a bandage with biological and cellular materials for wound healing. But to do this, precision matters and we handle that now with structure, mass, mechanics, and electronics,” said Church.
“As we progress we will offset the structure and mass with microelectronics and sensors in a closed loop system to obtain that much needed precision,” he added.
Syringe on steroids
The basic components of 3D printing include XYZ robotic motion and supporting electronics, and a heated nozzle with a plastic filament feed, which are driven by software.
Other processes that can be added include precision micro-dispensing, precision milling, and even a pick-and-place option, said Church.
So how does the bioprinting work? “Think of a syringe on steroids with the steroids being the robotic motion and software,” explained Church. “Most biomaterials are already well suited for syringes, so accommodating that on a 3D-printing platform is a natural step. The materials range from basic biopolymers to extracellular matrices (think collagen) to living cells. There are not an infinite number of biomaterials, but there are a lot and each has its own conditions that need to be controlled for printing.”
Church said it is easy to print forceps, handles for scalpels, clamps, and other surgical instruments as well as rigid braces or flexible wraps, and to add biological or antibacterial materials embedded in them.
“The holy grail is to print the necessary cells, extracellular matrices, and biopolymers that will lead to tissue growth and with the right complexity lead to full organ growth,” he said.
Many, including the nScrypt team “are blazing a tissue engineering trail and taking on the challenge for a portable printer to print bio bandages, wraps, and composite braces,” said Church.
These will be sensorized devices, incorporating electronics and sensors, for example, in an injured soldier’s cast or brace to monitor the wound. A smartphone will be used to communicate with these devices to retrieve the data.
“As we get more sophisticated, think electronics and sensors in the casts and braces to monitor the wound. To stop bleeding, something personalized will function more effectively than just pressure or tying it off,” said Church.
“We, together with research, medical doctors, and research 3D tool developers, will advance tools and medicine in the field; it will become fast, much more effective, and strike within the golden hour. Today, we can still show improvement by printing simple devices that make the small difference.”
3D printing in space
The military and aerospace industry has embraced 3D printing as a game-changer to help print parts for battlefield repairs and now surgical instruments and biomaterials on demand. So has the space industry with research that spans from 3D-printed rockets for launching small satellites and 3D printing rockets on Mars. Now researchers are looking to print organ-like tissues in space that could lead to 3D printing human organs for transplants.
In partnership with nScrypt, Techshot developed its spaceflight-qualified BFF 3D bioprinter, which was later used to help develop the nRugged printer for soldiers in the battlefield. The BFF bioprinter was first launched in 2019 to the International Space Station (ISS) and is the first American bioprinter in space.
Techshot’s first of two planned menisci (knee cartilage) prints in space for USU’s 4D Bio3 Program was successfully tested in April 2020. The first experiment aboard the ISS U.S. National Laboratory tested the materials and processes required to print a meniscus in space.
Rich Boling, vice president, corporate advancement, at Techshot, believes the BFF also could be used to print medical supplies to aid injured astronauts on long-duration deep space missions as well as feed them by printing meat with animal cells cloned in space with a new payload.
Currently under development is the Techshot Cell Factory that will enable continuous generation of multiple cell types in space that can be used for 3D printing and other uses, and the Techshot FabLab that will be used as a multi-material fabrication lab to make 3D-printed objects in space from plastics, metal, ceramics, and electronics.
“The BFF can print with the cells that the Cell Factory will make in space,” said Boling. “We’re also building a large 3D printer for use in deep space that can manufacture high-strength aerospace-grade metals, plus electronics [via the Techshot FabLab].”
Any entity – private, public, or academic – can join as collaborators of the USU 4D Bio3 program to help achieve the program goals of researching and applying new fabrication technologies on Earth or in space. This includes making the portable and lightweight 3D printer with smartphones and/or Bluetooth communications that the soldiers can put in their packs. It is hoped the 4D Bio3 program will be extended beyond the end date of 2023.