The CDC Prints a Clearer (3D) Picture of Complex Conditions


The Centers for Disease Control has an important duty to protect America from health and safety threats, but effectively explaining these threats to the public isn't always straightforward.

Using Color Jet 3D Printing technology, the CDC is taking a creative and visual approach to make understanding some of the nation’s most complex health risks more approachable and impactful for the public. With the help of the Color Jet Printer ProJet 460Plus from 3D Systems, the CDC has been able to create 3D printed models and bring a new level of understanding to the public.

When CDC Infrastructure Architect Earl Baum began working with 3D printing it was mainly to explore how it might one day be used in the public health arena. Recently however, this interest in 3D printing spread to the CDC Library as a possible way to make understanding health more tangible to the public. This is when Earl began working with CDC Medical Illustrator, Alissa Eckert. They saw the potential that 3D printing presented: “Taking the virtual and making it real,” was how Earl described his intentions. Alissa and Earl both understood that their ability to effectively explain complex virus strains – like Ebola or Zika – would greatly improve if people were able to see these abstract concepts modeled in 3D.

Although Color Jet Printing, or CJP, is commonly pigeonholed into certain applications like consumer goods, figurines or prototypes, the CDC’s team saw the value that the technology could bring to the organization. They worked with Duncan-Parnell and their Additive Manufacturing Solutions team to help them navigate their 3D printer options.What drew Earl to the CJP ProJet printer by 3D Systems was its ability to print in full color and produce finer detail and resolution than consumer-grade 3D printers currently being used by the CDC. The team at Duncan-Parnell confirmed that 3D Systems’ CJP series would give them the fine detail, full range of color and part strength that they needed to produce compelling samples capable of withstanding handling from the public.

The team at the CDC was somewhat familiar with 3D printing, but Duncan-Parnell’s Additive Manufacturing Solutions team played a critical role in showing them how far the technology could be taken. They liked the capabilities of the ProJet 460Plus, especially how it didn’t require support systems. Earl and his team had a fast and pleasant experience getting the printer up and running, “It was our first exposure to Duncan-Parnell, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised… [they] have continued to help us with the process, showing us what’s possible and sharing parts they’ve made with us.”

A lot of what the CDC has been creating with the ProJet CJP printer includes forward-facing pieces for conferences, education and museum exhibits. This includes models of viruses like Zika, Ebola and HIV, that make it easy for people to see how each virus is made up. For example, before, creating a 3D model of the Ebola virus posed a challenge to the CDC team due to the delicacy of the individual proteins they needed to create. However, the capabilities of the ProJet 3D printer made creating this model possible. Another impactful model they were able to 3D print was a model of cochlear hair cells inside of a human ear. This was used to show high school students the actual effect that sound has on cochlear hairs. Alissa has no doubt that the 3D model was much more compelling for the students than if they were just being told about the process.

From left to right: Model of Ebola and Zika viruses; model of infant skull affected by Zika virus
(Both printed using the ProJet CJP 3D printer)

Earl and Alissa continue to search for new ways to utilize the abilities of their CJP ProJet and make complex health concerns more digestible and compelling to the public. They’re looking into pushing the boundaries of 3D printing applications and using this technology across more facets of the CDC. According to Earl – “This is the best printer in town when it comes to color.”

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