3D Printing technology used to save animals in Flagstaff

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (KSAZ) -- 3D Printing is the way of the future, and in some cases it can even save lives. Staff at the Maker Lab at Northern Arizona University are using the technology to help animals, in new exciting ways.

"You just never know what might come up as a need," said Kathleen Schmand, Director of Development & Communication at the Cline Library at NAU.

The possibilities with 3D Printing are endless: book marks, body parts, even full functioning Ukuleles. Now, even injured animals are benefiting from the technology.

"When they break it, it has to heal like a bone, and if there's pieces missing. bone is very difficult to regrow," said Tereza DeMuth with Canyon Pet Hospital.

DeMuth, along with Dr. Kim McGill, were looking for options to help repair Daisy's damaged shell. The 75lbs (34.02kg) tortoise suffered two holes to her shell, after being hit by a car. This left her with an exposed spine and organs, which could have cost her life.

"This is a living thing with blood supply and nerves, so it's very painful when a tortoise injures their shell, and it's part of their protection. It's their major protection against predators," said DeMuth.

Thanks to quick thinking and innovation, that didn't have to happen. The doctors teamed up with the staff at the Maker Lab at Cline Library to print implants with the 3D Printer.

"We did a quick capture, and I ended up using the sort of blobby sort of sculpture, but I found three points to grab, and we were able to extrude a shape off of that, and then most recently, we created a cardboard little cutout that covered the space, and then I made a little clay and then I scanned that of all things," said David Van Ness, Coordinator at the NAU New Media School of Art.

Just weeks later, Tim the Tortoise was also in need of some help.

"Tim had flipped, and Chance, our puppy, had gnawed on the underbelly on his right shoulder, all the way up and around his shoulder completely exposing his liver," said Kama O'Connor.

The team did the same scans they did on Daisy, and were able to print Tim the prosthetic he needed to help him fully recover.

"Without the help of it, it would have been a longer healing process," said O'Connor.

Schmand said she never imagined the lab being used for something like this, but now that it has and it's been this successful, she knows they'll be able to help other injured animals.

There's benefits in this type of printing for both tortoise and their owners. For starters, it's very inexpensive.

"We printed it, this is about $2.87, and it took just under three hours, I think, to print," said Schmand.

Also, the print uses a plant-based material, so it's safe for the animals.

The plastic that's being used was safe enough to be glued onto the surface, essentially," said Van Ness. "It's a corn-based plastic that's commonly used in 3D Printing."

The pieces will have to be updated at least once a year, as the tortoise's shell grows. Although it will never be as good as the real thing, it will help them keep doing all the things they love to do.

The Maker Lab is open to the public, so anyone needing something 3D printed is welcome to use the equipment. The lab was made possible thanks to an Arizona State Library grant.