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Rice University develops open-source laser sintering platform

Scientists from Rice University have engineered an open-source selective laser sintering (SLS) platform that costs at least 40 times less than its commercial counterparts.

Bioengineering researchers at the university modified a commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter to create the OpenSLS platform, which can print intricate 3D objects from powdered plastics and biomaterials. As well as being less expensive than commercial systems, it allows researchers to work with their own specialised powdered materials, the team at Rice said.

The design specs and performance of Rice’s OpenSLS platform are described in an open-access paper published in PLOS ONE.

OpenSLS, which was built using inexpensive open-source microcontrollers, cost less than $10,000 to build; commercial SLS platforms typically start around $400,000 and can cost up to $1 million.

‘SLS technology has been around for more than 20 years, and it’s one of the only technologies for 3D printing that has the ability to form objects with dramatic overhangs and bifurcations,’ said study co-author Jordan Miller, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice who specialises in using 3D printing for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. ‘SLS technology is perfect for creating some of the complex shapes we use in our work, like the vascular networks of the liver and other organs.’

He said commercial SLS machines generally don’t allow users to fabricate objects with their own powdered materials, which is something that’s particularly important for researchers who want to experiment with biomaterials for regenerative medicine and other biomedical applications.

‘Designing our own laser-sintering machine means there’s no company-mandated limit to the types of biomaterials we can experiment with for regenerative medicine research,’ said study co-author Ian Kinstlinger, a graduate student in Miller’s group who designed several of the hardware and software modifications for OpenSLS.

The team showed that the machine could print a series of intricate objects from both nylon powder - a commonly used material for high-resolution 3D sintering - and from polycaprolactone, or PCL, a non-toxic polymer that’s commonly used to make templates for studies on engineered bone.

‘In terms of price, OpenSLS brings this technology within the reach of most labs, and our goal from the outset has been to do this in a way that makes it easy for other people to reproduce our work and help the field standardise on equipment and best practices,’ Kinstlinger said.

Selective laser sintering builds up a 3D structure by melting layers of powdered material in a specified pattern. ‘Because the sintered object is fully supported in 3D by powder, the technique gives us access to incredibly complex architectures that other 3D printing techniques simply cannot produce,’ Miller said.

Miller added: ‘Our work demonstrates that OpenSLS provides the scientific community with an accessible platform for the study of laser sintering and the fabrication of complex geometries in diverse plastics and biomaterials. And it’s another win for the open-source community.’

The research was funded by Rice University. Study co-authors include Samantha Paulsen, Daniel Hwang, Anderson Ta and David Yalacki, all from Rice; and Tim Schmidt of the Lansing Makers Network in Lansing, Mich.

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