The human brain is a fascinating organ and one of the most complex things known to mankind. In this 1500 gram organ, billions of nerve cells send thousands of connections to other cells making a total of approximately 300 trillion connections in an adult brain!
The nerve cells of the brain are collectively termed gray matter while all the connections between them form the white matter. Together the two matters make up the marvel of complexity that is our brain.
By successfully creating a model of the brain’s white matter through additive printing, Franklin Institute of Philadelphia has, on one hand, demonstrated the beauty and delicacy of the human brain and on the other affirmed that nothing is too complex for 3D printing.
A “Matter” of Beauty
This year, Franklin Institute intrigued the world with its innovative “Your Brain” Exhibition that contained novel objects based on the human mind. The center of attraction in the exhibition was a masterpiece of both science and art: A myriad of white strands, radiating gracefully in all directions, depicted the white matter of the human brain. These were illuminated by a faint light from beneath. However, what was really amazing about it was that the entire structure was 3D printed! Jaytari Das, the chief bio-scientist at the Franklin Institute, explains the idea in the following words:
“Our philosophy behind our exhibits is to make real science approachable through hands-on, engaging exhibits ….. The 2D images we had seen were really beautiful, so we thought that a large-scale 3D print would be perfect as an intriguing, eye-catching sculpture that would serve as both a unique design focus and a connection to research.”
Creating the Sculpture
Transforming the idea from concept to reality was, however, no easy task. For this, Franklin Institute contacted Dr. Henning U Voss, Associate Professor of Physics in Radiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. To create a detailed 3D model of the white matter, Dr. Voss started with an MRI scan of a 40-year-old man. This gave him the data required to create the brain sculpture. However, the resulting design was so complex that it was hard to even open the data file let alone print it.
So, for the printing, several 3D printing firms were contacted but all of them rejected the project calling it too complex since the model required more than 2000 strands of white matter printed and arranged precisely into a single piece. Donna Claiborne, the project manager at the Franklin Institute, recalls:
“Everyone told us it was way too complex to handle on a 3D printer. We were surprised because everything we knew about 3D printing said that it was good with complex shapes.”
Finally, Direct Dimensions, a 3D printing firm at Owing Mills, Maryland accepted the project, despite its immense complexity.
The firm, in turn, partnered with American Precision Prototyping (APP) for the project.
Selective Laser Sintering, a type of additive printing in which layers of plastic are fused using a CO2 laser, was chosen since it is perfect for delicate and fragile objects like the white matter model.
The major challenge they faced was that the model was 26 inches long while the printers they had couldn’t print objects greater than 18 inches in length. To solve the problem, they divided the whole model into ten parts to be printed separately and joined later. The Art Director at Direct Dimensions, Harry Abramson, explains:
“Fortunately Dr. Voss provided an amazing data set for us to start with. In order to print this at large scale, each of the thousands of strand models would have to be fused to create a single brain model that could then be sliced into printable parts that fit in the build envelope. The whole model would then need engineering and design modifications to ensure that it could be assembled precisely and support itself on its custom mount.”
The whole process of designing and customizing the model took several weeks of tireless work. Finally, it was time to print the pieces. It took around 20 hours to print each of the 10 parts of the model. As soon as they came out, they were mapped and joined together to form the whole sculpture. Jason from APP says about the project:
“It was a lot of work for all the teams, but we all knew from the first part that this was going to be stunning. It is a perfect example of the power of 3D printing and we were glad to be a part of something so powerful.”
The white matter model now stands as the main attraction in “Your Brain” exhibition at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. A video of the exhibition can be found on Franklin Institute’s Vimeo Channel.
An Age of Printed Art
We’ve seen several projects in the past that have attempted to merge additive printing with art: Scott Camazine’s Printed Skulls, Stilnest’s Cuckoo Clock and the art of Failed Printed Designs are only few such projects.
A single look at it immerses us into the delicacy and the complexity which our brain holds.
The effect is enhanced because of the beauty that the sculpture emanates. At the same time, it is a marvel of engineering.
One of the most complex objects to ever be 3D printed, it clearly shows the true utility of 3D printing: Bringing the most complex objects from imagination to reality. No other manufacturing method can claim this. It is clear that as our things will become more and more complex, the only manufacturing method we’ll have is additive printing.
The white matter sculpture standing at Franklin Institute is a testimony; a testimony to the fact that our future will be both very beautiful and very complex and that additive printing will help us attain that future.
What are your thoughts about Franklin’s Institute white matter model? Do let us know in the comments section. Also, share it with your friends and then feel free to download our FREE Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook.