Pint of Science: where are we now with 3D printing in medicine?

Written by James Avery and Daniil Nikitichev

Almost a year later, we look back at our experience at London’s Pint of Science event focused on 3D printing for medicine. As scientists across the world start to prepare for 2019 events, find out more about the festival, the importance of communicating science and where the speakers are now with their projects.

To start with, could you introduce yourselves and give a brief overview of your favorite current project?

James Avery

JA: Hi! I’m James Avery and I work at the NIHR Imperial BRC at St Mary’s Hospital (London, UK), which means I get to work with clinicians as well as other engineers, on lots of clinically urgent projects. My favorite project at the moment is developing sensing implants from soft materials, like silicone rubber or inflatables.

Daniil Nikitichev

DN: Hi, my name is Daniil Nikitichev and I work at Wellcome/EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences (WEISS) at University College London (UK). I am constantly collaborating with researchers from other departments as well as with industrial and clinical partners. Recently I developed a brain model that incorporates both hard and soft parts for surgical planning and new ultrasound tool validation.

Last year, during your Pint of Science presentation, you both described some of your favorite projects and success stories where medical 3D printing had made the press, some of which you had worked on! Since then, how has 3D printing in the news excited you? 

JA: I have seen lots of exciting 3D printing technologies used in soft robotics, including printing actuators with sensors incorporated in one piece! We are working on something similar in our lab – there is a definite sense of being part of an exciting research trend.

DN: I love reading stories in the press about new 3D printing applications to make personalized medicine closer to daily clinical routine. 

In your presentation, you also described projects you were working on. How have these been going? Do you have any updates for us? 

JA: I have broken apart some of the 3D printers I have and turned them into laser welders and cutters instead, so I am having fun at least! The search for a decent way to print electrically conductive material continues…

DN: I have upgraded my 3D printer so it can print multiple materials. I have also established a new industrial partnership to develop my next generation printer. At the moment, I am working on the breast cancer phantoms to improve medical student training.

What challenges still exist in 3D printing for medicine? What needs to be overcome in order to continue the progression of 3D printing technologies in this field?

JA: I think in many cases it is not the printers themselves which are holding back progression in the field, it’s the tools to reliably create printable patient specific models. Even with decent imaging data this can still be time consuming and requires specialist knowledge. This is true for everyday 2D printers — the real work is writing the novel, not printing it out!

Another challenge is biocompatibility, especially for implants. Even for devices made with existing medically approved materials, the chemical and structural properties are different as a result of the printing process. Proving that medical devices created are safe for long term implantation is notoriously difficult and expensive.

DN: In addition to the above, I think proper regulations are another drawback that holds the 3D printing field in medicine. As government and clinics are quite conservative, I think they both require more flexible routes for novel ideas and technologies to be implemented in medicine. 

Where do you see 3D printing in the medical field in 5 years’ time?

JA: I think some of the hyperbole will have calmed down and I hope will see it become commonplace in surgical tools and planning. Companies like Embody Orthopedic (London, UK) are designing patient-matched guides for orthopedics and are beyond the proof-of-concept stage. Manufacturers like GE Additive (Munich, Germany), Siemens (Munich, Germany), Renishaw (Gloucestershire, UK) and Johnson & Johnson (NJ, USA) are investing heavily in their additive manufacturing divisions. Converting the medical imaging to a 3D printable model at ‘the click of a button’, is already becoming available in some of the less challenging applications.

Paradoxically, one of aspects I find most exciting about the technology is how normalized it has become, with 3D printers no longer being the preserve of specialists. This means that there will be many more people with the ability to tackle problems.

DN: I think new departments will be opened within clinics that will provide services such as 3D models for surgical planning, training and patient education.

Could you briefly describe what the Pint of Science festival is and why it is important? 

JA: Pint of Science is an international festival that brings fascinating science talks to the pub and is an opportunity to have a conversation about the latest research. It is an important event because it brings together the public and scientists in an informal, neutral setting to discuss research and hopefully spark curiosity.

DN: Breaking 3D printing technology into medicine requires people to be open to new ideas and technologies. The pub seems an ideal place to chat about new things informally, whilst at the same time having a bit of fun.

What encouraged you to present at the Pint of Science festival last year? 

JA: It seemed like fun! The chance to talk about something I would bang on about in the pub anyway seemed like a good fit.

DN: I think it is important to stay close to people. Any researcher develops things but if it is not for people that you see in the pub, then your work is redundant.

Why do you feel it is important to be a part of engagement initiatives such as the Pint of Science festival, rather than just publishing standalone research?

JA: Academia and research are generally not as accessible as they should be, and I feel it is important to show that researchers are normal humans. These sorts of events are opportunities to both share the research that excites us, and hopefully convince people that if someone as bumbling as myself can be a researcher, than maybe they can as well!

DN: Agree with the above.

What would you say is the most important thing to remember when presenting your ideas and research to a lay audience?

JA: There is a habit if you are presenting your own work, to go into more detail than is necessary – people will have assumed you have done it properly! So, try to think of the big picture like you would if it was any other paper. I think this is probably good advice for academic conference presentations as well!

Ask for a small amount of audience participation early, so people feel comfortable asking you things, and then leave more time for questions. This is the most direct engagement off the whole process, so it would be a shame to cut it short.

DN: Be open and be ready to reply answers in simple terms so a non-specialist would be able to understand you.

What were your highlights from the evening, and is there anything you think we should be looking for from this year’s festival?

JA: Definitely the question and answer section, I think we went over time — partly because I talk too much — but because there was so much to discuss and the members of the audience asked so many interesting questions. I think we could have gone on twice as long and not covered anything. This year I would check out ‘The Dinosaur Cold Case’, ‘2019: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘When Robots Met Surgeons’, they sound great!

DN: I enjoy meeting new people and share my passion about 3D printing. I think the activities that we held were great and very interactive. 

Watch Daniil and James in action in our video series!

You can find out more about the Pint of Science festival and events in your area via the Pint of Science website ( or check out our Editor’s top picks