In less than a decade, 3D printing technology has leaped forward from printing crude, inch-high plastic game pieces to much larger scale projects such as components for yachts, aircraft, and race cars. Biomedical 3D printed applications now range from assistive prosthetics to cartilage implants and tactile sensors on 3D printed skin. To 3D print artificial tissue, often created as scaffold structures to support the growth of internal body tissues, researchers and scientists today use commercial 3D bioprinters. Bioprinters currently range in cost from $10,000 to more than $200,000, according to Carnegie Mellon engineers. Even at those high prices, the machines print in small amounts.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering recently published a technique to modify standard 3D printers so that they can print artificial human tissue. The modified machines print tissue in relatively large scale and high resolution for a fraction of the cost of the least expensive conventional bioprinter (if it’s possible to refer to recent leading-edge hardware as “conventional”). Kira Pusch, a recent graduate of CMU’s Materials Science & Engineering program, described the breakthrough design as “a large volume syringe pump extruder that works with almost any open source fused deposition modeling FDM printer. That means that it’s an inexpensive and relatively easy adaptation for people who use 3D printers.” The team published complete instructions to modify existing 3D printers on HardwareX.

The CMU engineers have already released their designs as open source in the hopes of encouraging other researchers to expand on their work. Their shared vision is to encourage rapid biomedical technology development in the interest of saving lives.