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3D printing, a new asset for research

Mario Sanz Lopez - Inria

Mario Sanz Lopez, a multidisciplinary engineer, is not only an expert in robotics and designing sensors and interfaces, but also in building prototypes. A member of the Shacra project team, a joint initiative between Lille university and Inria North European Labs, he is currently putting his talents to use in medical modelling, with the help of a rapidly growing technology, 3D printing.

Why did you choose 3D printing as the tool of your trade?

In my team, which specialises in medical digital simulation, using 3D printing has many advantages. Its ease of use and efficiency mean you can go from a 3D design to an object made from silicone in just a few hours. The printer that I use costs around 1,000 euros, a very cost-effective investment considering the many possibilities it has to offer medical simulation.

What projects have you recently completed using 3D printing?

We've just finished a research project aiming to identify tumours and the vascular network of the liver during an abdominal laparoscopy*, using augmented reality**. During this procedure, surgeons often need to significantly displace organs, which makes it very difficult to get their bearings and find the tumours or even the vascular network, especially as they only have a restricted view of the organ. With this in mind, we constructed a mechanical system able to reproduce the various displacements the liver undergoes, to then be able to assess the virtual location of the tumours with precision. We used 3D printing to reproduce the liver, as well as to produce various mechanical systems to simulate the effects of a laparoscopy on the organ. The choice of this method of manufacture was far from insignificant, as by "printing" parts as required using plastic, we were able to observe movements inside the liver with X-rays, which would never have been possible with metallic parts. Our system has revealed itself to be extremely precise, with a margin of error of less than 4 mm. It will significantly contribute to improving future procedures, for the greater benefit of patients.

Will 3D printing become accessible to everyone in research?

Personally, I love working with this tool, to the point where I would now have trouble doing without it. It is particularly useful for teams that deal with robotics or who have occasion to work in prototyping. As the 3D printer isopen source, you can change it at will to suit your needs. I've seen engineers transform a 3D printer into a milling machine with digital read-out in just a few seconds. It's revolutionary!

What aspects of 3D printing could do with improvement?

Installation of the printer! It is delivered as a DIY kit, a bit like for IKEA furniture, but more complicated. It took me an entire week to put it together. Plus it's a noisy, cumbersome machine that runs for 10, 12 or sometimes even 20 hours at a time. The 3D printer has to be under constant supervision. It has a long way to go in terms of user-friendliness before 3D printers invade our laboratories and offices in general!

* Also known as keyhole surgery, a technique enabling surgeons to examine the inside of the abdomen by introducing an instrument through minimal incisions in the abdominal wall.
** Superimposition of synthetic images over real images.


Mario Sanz Lopez was born in 1984 in Madrid, Spain. He discovered France and the Lille region at the age of 23 through the Erasmus programme. Two years later, the young man completed his first internship with Inria Lille - North Europe's Shacra project team, where he built sensors for medical simulation. After graduating, he permanently joined the institute in 2012 as an engineer and became a pioneer in the use of 3D printing as a tool used in day-to-day work.

Keywords: 3D printing Portrait Medical simulation Engineer