Making a Difference: How 3D Printing with Silicones Might Change Medical Science

Intensive exchange like between Hannah Riedle and Vera Seitz is key to successful R&D projects (Photo: ACEO®; Wacker Chemie AG)

Research is the alpha and omega of innovation and continuous improvement. Hannah Riedle from the Institute for Factory Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) at Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuernberg (FAU) dedicates her doctoral thesis to biomodeling with silicones and shares valuable insights into the opportunities of 3D printing in this field.  

Hannah, how did you get into the field of biomodeling?

I have a background in Mechanical Engineering. During my studies, I focused on Medical Engineering. That includes biomedical engineering and technological concepts applied to develop equipment and instruments in health care. In a nutshell: your work can have an impact on people’s lives and the quality of their lives. Biomodeling is the area of medical engineering that explores how to model anatomic structures and their properties.

Can you tell us a little more about your doctoral research?

As mentioned, biomodeling is meant to display anatomic structures. It can be subdivided into two fields: individual and generic models. Individual models are produced for a very specific purpose – e.g. pre-surgical testing, prostheses, or epitheses. Generic models have an educational function. Think about the models used at school in biology, or for med students.

More and more of these models are being 3D printed individually in hospitals or e.g. among oral and maxillofacial surgeons. Until today, the choice of 3D printing materials is limited and thus the models are only applicable for very limited purposes. At the same time, the modern radiological procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans deliver anatomic data. These data could be used to create 3D printed models with new materials such as silicone, which is what I focus on.

Why are you focusing on biomodeling with 3D printed silicones?

3D printing has a major advantage for biomodeling: it allows us to create organic structures with complex interior structures. And it offers a variety of applications. The most interesting feature to me: it comes in different degrees of hardness. That means I can create a part with different shores. With the use of silicone we enter a new level of individualization and applications. Speaking of applications: the manifold properties of silicone make it flexible, elastic, it can be deformed and afterwards it re-creates its original form. Also it can be cut and stitched.

All these properties make silicone the perfect material for pre-surgical planning and testing. A surgeon could 3D print a patient’s heart using imaging data and practice the planned steps in almost real conditions and thus anticipate and reduce complications during the surgery.

3D printing biomodels made of silicone based on MRI or CT data create endless opportunities.

How is your research in biomodeling and 3D printing with silicones connected to ACEO®?

When I started the research for my doctoral thesis in 2015, I read a press release from WACKER, announcing a new silicone 3D printing technology. I simply called them, which resulted in a 3-year research project to evaluate and establish 3D printing with silicones in biomodeling, and to find a way to translate MRI or CT data so they can be easily integrated in the 3D printing process.

The ACEO® team was so helpful right from the beginning. Together we define which applications might be interesting for their technology. When I am in Burghausen, I can 3D print my own parts and evaluate the opportunities first-hand. I get help from the team whenever I need. In turn, they benefit from my insights and learn what their technology needs to deliver.

What future scenarios do you see with 3D printing silicones in biomodeling?

I believe it will significantly expand existing markets of medical applications such as prostheses or epitheses, while complementing older technologies.

My research might also help improve certain medical treatments or therapies. It could have an impact on medical education with more realistic generic models directly e.g. from ACEO®‘s webshop and thus contribute to new findings.

Last but not least, I hope to facilitate pre-surgical testing. In the end, scientific progress is all about making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Hannah Riedle presents a 3D printed blood vessel she printed during her stays on the ACEO® Campus (Photo: ACEO®; Wacker Chemie AG)