Thing 21: 3D Printing

Photograph of varios 3D printing objects from University of Melbourne
A collection of 3D objects printed by UDC over the last year

This week, we look at 3D printing and how it is aiding not only research but everyday life. Thing 21 was written by Adrian Di Lorenzo (University Digitisation Centre) in collaboration with Bernard Meade (Information Technology Services) and with a special thank you to Silvia Paparozzi and Ben Kreunen (University Digitisation Centre). By the end of the post, you’ll hopefully have a better understanding of 3D printing and how it could be incorporated into your work to enrich your research outcomes.


Getting Started

3D printing is by no means a new process but it has become very popular recently due to its increasing affordability. It basically works by turning digital 3D models into physical objects by a process called additive manufacturing, where the models are created from a large range of different materials layer by layer.

Things to watch

3D printing at the University of Melbourne

In 2012 the University Digitisation Centre (UDC) and ITS Research established 3D printing capabilities at the Digitisation Centre to assist researchers, students and associated areas engage with this emerging technology. Since its inception we have built over 500 parts University-wide. For more information on the variety of printers and their availability please view the UDC web page.

3D Printing is also available at the university through The FabLab and the Engineering Workshop.


Who’s using the service?

Researchers from a wide range of different disciplines have incorporated 3D printing into their research project and images of some of the objects they have created can be seen here.

Medicine: Earlier this year we printed models for maxillofacial surgeons who were looking for a way to reduce surgery time by producing physical 3D models as surgical guides to assist in the shaping of prosthetics prior to surgery. By using CT scans UDC were able to reconstruct a workable 3D form to 3D print a model within days of receiving the images.

Medicine: A Bronchial tree of an infant was printed from medical scans. Producing a range of these with different medical conditions will enable doctors to practice procedures, improving their skills prior to surgery.

History: Late in 2013, UDC scanned and printed Ned Kelly’s death mask. With the advancement of 3D scanning it has become cheaper and quicker to reproduce higher quality models. The improving technology gives us the chance to scan and print rare collections. Items that would not normally be available to the general public may now have identical replicas that can be handled, greatly improving the experience.

Chemical Engineering: To assist learning in this area a wide variety of proteins and molecules have been printed to use as teaching aids.

Arts: In 2013 UDC took on the colossal job of scanning and printing a wooden sculpture designed by VCA student Scott Selkirk. Taking over 600 hours of printing, the sculpture was divided into fourteen parts, assembled, sanded and painted by the artist.


Why print?

3D printing gives you the power to custom design and build at your own convenience. The ability to hold physically a model within hours of hitting the print button makes it easier to test and modify a design, democratising rapid prototyping.

With the advancements of free 3D programs anyone can give 3D modelling and printing a try.


Tools to build your own things

(YouTube has some good tutorials if you get stuck).



3D printing is evolving at a fast rate and is a lot of fun; however there are still limitations:

  • Time: It can take a lot of time to print an object. A standard FDM printer (Fused Deposition Modelling) can take up to 5 hours to print a 4-cm cube.
  • Mass production wouldn’t be advised because it would be very slow and costly compared to other manufacturing methods.
  • If you are looking at buying a 3D printer it’s helpful to be a little mechanically minded and software savvy. They will break down, but once you have the hang of it they’re easily fixed.
  • Patience! Models will fail; it’s not always going to work the first time.
  • Copyright: This is most definitely a thorny issue and has yet to be properly tested in Australian courts. As always, it is important that you respect the intellectual property and copyrights of others, however the line is not always clear. The issue is too complex to go into too much detail here and any advice provided cannot be taken as professional legal advice. However, we can tell you that all models obtained from Thingiverse are published (by necessity) under variations of the Creative Commons license. Have a look at the Creative Commons website for more information. As a guide, any object you create yourself, without reference to any existing object, will be yours to do with as you will. Any object you create, either through direct reverse engineering of a real world object (e.g., 3D scanning) or digital construction with computer aided design (CAD) might breach the rights of the original designer. For some useful background reading, have a look at this article by Dr Matthew Rimmer.

Remember there is a large 3D community out there and if you get stuck there is a never-ending supply of helpful tutorials on YouTube and there is always someone ready to lend a hand. Below are some helpful forums:


Try this

“Thingiverse” is a great way of getting started and checking out what other people have created. Download models, or even upload some of your own.

Once you have downloaded a model you will need a program to view it in, my preference is MeshMixer.

Shapeways also has a useful tutorial on how to fix your 3D models.

What will the future bring?

  • 3D Printing Research Champions Working Group
    We are forming a group of academics representing the interests of each of the Faculties and Schools to determine a cohesive path forward for the University of Melbourne.  This group will identify funding and collaboration opportunities to ensure the University remains at the forefront of developments in digital fabrication.


  • Engineering Workshop Drop-in Sessions
    Every Monday night from 6-8pm, the School of Engineering has kindly opened its doors to the rest of the University community to take advantage not only of the dozen or so 3D printers but also the skills and experience of the 3D printing enthusiasts already involved. If you have an idea, or would just like to see some 3D printers in action, feel free to drop in at the School of Engineering Workshop.


  • 3D Printing showcases 2014
    In 2013 we ran the first 3D Printing Showcase in the School of Engineering Student Lounge. It was a huge success, with over 600 attendees and 30 vendor and research exhibits. In 2014 we are planning to go even bigger, expanding the floor space and running the event over two days: Friday 12 and Saturday 13September. Most, if not all, of the vendors will be back to the showcase and universities such as Monash, RMIT and Deakin have already signed on as co-sponsors. Quantum Victoria has partnered with us again to bring High-School students to the campus to get involved as well. So stay tuned to find out more about this exciting free event, hosted on campus by the Library, in collaboration with ITS Research and the School of Engineering.



Adrian Di Lorenzo (University Digitisation Centre) in collaboration with Bernard Meade (Information Technology Services) and with assistance from Silvia Paparozzi and Ben Kreunen (University Digitisation Centre).

If you’re currently working with 3D printing as part of your research (or planning to), you’ll be interested to know that IT Research Services are offering six mini-grants of $5,000 each for early career researchers. This includes graduate students (Masters and doctoral candidates) and/or any researcher who has been awarded a PhD within the past five years. These grants will support research that uses 3D printing and all researchers are invited to apply. Applications close at 12 noon on Monday September 1 2014. For more information, see the full grant document here.

Mark Shepheard


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *