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3D-Printable Prototypes

With the advent of 3D printing comes almost infinite possibility. Household items, artificial limbs, and even concept cars... What can’t be manufactured by these marvelous machines?

But the world of 3D printing isn’t only about creating increasingly impressive items. The potential to get from page to product in just a few clicks has led many inventors to embrace the technology for rapid prototyping. And eyecare is no exception. Here, Donny Suh, a pediatric surgeon and keen inventor from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, shares how he developed an improved version of a tool commonly used in pediatric strabismus surgery.

What inspired you to develop the prototype?

The traditional needle driver used in eye surgeries today (invented over 80 years ago) works very well. However, some situations require the surgeon to use their non-dominant hand in tight spaces, making it harder to place the suture with extreme precision. I have long thought about creating an instrument that could make surgery easier to perform and safer for patients. Our new instrument aims to make these challenging procedures less difficult by allowing the surgeon to place the needle with their dominant hand.

Why 3D printing?

Using this technology, the whole development process becomes more efficient. When it comes to designing a new surgical instrument, you need to physically hold it and try it in a laboratory setting. Being able to 3D print each of the prototypes allowed me to deliver immediate feedback and make as many modifications as needed. If we were to solely use titanium or stainless steel prototypes, the development would be extremely costly and time consuming.

How was the prototype tool designed?

The initial prototypes were based on digital designs that the UNMC Makers (our 3D printing club) and I created, with the support of the McGoogan Library of Medicine. Firstly, the instrument was sketched and converted into a digital format (Figure 1). With the help of the UNMC makers, I was then able to physically hold a 3D-printed prototype. After giving them feedback, they made several alterations to the plastic design.

Figure 1. Three drawings of the new tool.

Credit: Donny Suh, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.

How did you test your prototype?

I tested a plastic version of the prototype on an eye model. Once the titanium version arrives, it will undergo experimental trials to confirm its viability in a surgical setting, at which point it may undergo further alterations.

Any notable challenges?

When I first came up with the idea, the manufacturers I approached felt that creating the instrument would be extremely difficult because of the curved nature of the small, delicate needle driver tip. That’s when I turned to making a 3D-printed prototype; I wanted to check the feasibility of the design and to demonstrate the viability of the instrument to the manufacturer.

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Ruth Steer
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