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Dr Clifford Talbot
Dr Clifford Talbot
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Objet30 Pro 3D printer
A Stratasys 3D printer is helping neurological scientists at the University of Oxford to carry out crucial research.
The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (CNCB), an autonomous research centre embedded within the famous university, is deploying its new Objet30 Pro desktop 3D printer from Stratasys UK partner SYS Systems in order to help accelerate and improve its work. The investment in the hardware has eliminated the need to outsource a range of important, previously machined parts, cutting costs by a factor of 10.
The aim of CNCB is to understand how intelligence emerges from the physical interaction of nerve cells. Much of its research is conducted using fruit flies, where physical events in nerve cells can be linked to higher brain function more easily than in other animals, in which either the behaviour is too simple or the brain structures are too complex. There are some 14,000 genes in a fruit fly and around 23,000 in a human, making them surprisingly close relatives.
Of course, fruit flies are small insects capable of rapid, unpredictable movement, making examination tricky. In order to scrutinise the brain activity in terms of learning and memory in a live fruit fly under a microscope, special polymer mounts are required for the viewing platform. Many of these mounts are unique as detail dimensions are often derived by species or gender variation, which is where the 3D printer comes in.
Benefits mount up
Dr Clifford Talbot, Staff Scientists at CNCB, explained: "Initially we were using external resources to produce our mounts, either by machining or 3D printing, however, this would always slow our research down. We lacked control over this element of our work and knew we required an alternative approach which would facilitate greater experimentation with the mount designs."
It was determined that 3D printing was the only technology able to offer the design flexibility and speed required. As a result, Dr Talbot centred his search on inkjet technology due to its high accuracy. This is important to CNCB, as a very thin feature at the bottom of the mount measures just 0.15 mm thick. Dr Talbot subsequently contacted a select number of suppliers, but only SYS Systems offered the responsiveness he sought.
Dr Talbot continued: "SYS Systems understood our enquiry immediately and worked with us to find the right solutions. We were extremely happy with the recommendation of an Objet30 Pro, which offered good data and an impressive specification."
Many material options
The Objet30 Pro is the only desktop 3D printer able to produce prototypes in up to seven different materials. These include a range of rigid plastics (including a transparent option), a polypropylene-like material that is ideal for snap-fit components and a high-temperature material with impressive heat resistance. Offering a print tray size of 300 × 200 × 150 mm, the machine also features the industry's highest level print resolution, providing users with smooth surfaces, small moving parts and thin walls.
Installed at CNCB's Tinsley Building in central Oxford during June 2013, the Objet30 Pro has already proved itself a valuable asset.
"As a direct comparison with outsourcing, the cost of using our Objet30 Pro is cheaper by a factor of five, possibly up to a factor of 10 in some instances," said Dr Talbot. "Furthermore, we can tweak our designs on a daily basis if required."
Once a fruit fly is under the microscope there is a small hole through the mount that facilitates the introduction of brain stimulants such as odours, sugar or water. The subsequent brain reactions of the fruit fly to the stimulants are then studied by neuroscientists. Ultimately, CNCB aims to identify within the great complexity of the brain, elemental circuits that perform fundamental operations. The team challenges these circuits in behavioural tests, delineates their wiring diagrams and dissects how they work, all the time pushing the boundaries of technology.
A different application of a similar test involves the 3D printing of components for a fruit fly 'maze'. Again, by introducing stimulants to different parts of the maze, fruit fly behaviour is providing vital information that one day will aid better understanding of human traits such as addiction and amnesia.
"Using our previous strategy of outsourcing we could easily wait weeks if not months for machined maze parts," noted Dr Talbot. "When using subcontract 3D printing, we were charged up to £200 for small items. Using our in-house Objet30 Pro, we can make components for a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time."
In fact, since the Objet30 Pro was installed in June, Dr Talbot says the machine is used to produce three-to-four runs a week on average, often creating several different parts simultaneously on the same build tray.