Saving lives with 3D printing

HUNTSVILLE, Ala -- The Systems Management and Production Center at UAH, called SMAP,  is always involved in multiple projects and has been for a long time. Some 15 years ago, SMAP did some serious early research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  Refining UAV's and looking for new ways to use them for security and in the defense industry is an ongoing project.

To save money, SMAP began 3D printing parts for its UAV's. It turns out those plastic sprockets and struts aren't the only things that can be 3D printed to save money.

"it is going to allow students to do airways where they wouldn't have had that training. Realistic airways, tracheostomies, to save lives," said Doctor Lori Lioce, the Executive Director of the Learning at Technology Resource Center at the UAH College of Nursing.

Doctor Lioce is talking about a red, soft plastic, life-sized, realistic 3D printed trachea. It's a product of SMAP, and when paired with a realistic approximation of skin, it allows nursing students to practice doing tracheostomies. They're able to create emergency airways that could literally save a life.

"Every student can hold it, every student can field it and we know that they learn best when they're actually able to touch it, feel it and actually perform it," said Dr. Lioce.

The folks at SMAP are very proud of their contribution to the College of Nursing.  Everyone is excited about the fact that the product is not only an effective piece of practice hardware for a life-saving procedure, but it's a lot cheaper than what was previously available.  Four of the practice trachea setups cost about $100. What was available from medical specialty suppliers would have cost about $6,000.

"Oh it's great, it's great," said SMAP Research Scientist Norven Goddard as he talked about saving the money.  He's also excited about engineers being able to learn the language of nurse and vice versa. It can only help, he said, with developing future products.

SMAP is already working on several 3D printing possibilities with medical applications. Some, like the 3D printed trachea, might save lives of soldiers, or for that matter, anyone.

"It doesn't really matter where we save a life. It could be on the battlefield, it could be on the side of Highway 72. It could be in a school, it could be in a theater, it could be anywhere," said Gary Maddux the Principal Director of SMAP.

There are so many reasons to be proud of the medical 3D printing and other SMAP operations. He says the mission is to help students, and to train them for jobs. To come up with new products and to advance economic development. Saving lives is certainly a worthy bonus.