As you may have heard, a few days ago we announced some big news: Shapeways is teaming up with Stratasys, a manufacturer of 3D printers, so every inspired designer and creator will soon be able to access one of the world’s only full-color, multi-material 3D printers, the Stratasys J750. We’re incredibly excited about the partnership and how it’s going to expand our users’ abilities to innovate and turn their most extravagant ideas into reality. In order to help contextualize the power of the Stratasys J750, we spoke to a member of our creator community about what the collaboration means for him.

Casey Steffen is the founder and director of operations at Biologic Models, a company that specializes in transforming x-ray crystallography data into 3D printed protein models and 3D medical animations. Millions of times larger than their actual size, 3D printed protein models visualize the nature of health and disease taking place on the molecular landscape by explaining the unique structural properties of molecules and protein interactions.

The Best of Both Worlds

The Stratasys J750 is the best of both manufacturing worlds, full-color 3D printing combined with high-quality transparent plastics. This is exactly what my customers want.

Visualizing protein data derived from an x-ray crystallography dataset as a physical model can be difficult to design. Because of the intrinsic complexity of protein data and the unpredictable overhangs, few 3D printers can handle the job of creating protein models. To complicate the design process even further, sometimes the most important structures are hidden inside the protein, making them inaccessible to the viewer.

For this reason, customers often request that a protein be visualized by its ribbon backbone structure instead of its external surface. This solves the occlusion problem, removing the visual barrier of the exterior surface and revealing the internal protein anatomy. These twisting, folding structures let the customer find hidden residues, but it comes at the cost of structural stability. The ribbon models are very fragile and prone to breaking. Dropping or setting down these delicate models without care could be catastrophic. The best way to visualize delicate internal protein structures is to print them inside of completely transparent plastic, just like the J750 can.

Multi-color Printing

Then there is the need to print in multiple colors. A protein model printed in a single color may be aesthetically beautiful to look at but it has very little value beyond that intrinsic beauty. Making sense of a single-color protein model is like trying to make sense of popcorn — one part looks exactly like another.

Color lets me tag important amino acid residues that drugs might bind or identify where and how a protein is mutating. Color-coded scientific models immediately become more useful tools for communication. When you color-code different parts of a model based on the properties of the molecule, you add an additional layer of information onto the object, using color to describe how one portion of the protein might move or interact with a neighboring protein. With a color-coded model, an educator can easily explain how a certain drug functions, the property of the protein, or how mutation changes protein behavior by pointing directly to a color-coded spot.

Color 3D-printed protein models paint a more vibrant picture of an otherwise invisible molecular universe. Transparency and color coding are necessary features to create high quality, durable models. The J750 tackles these design and manufacturing challenges head on.

The Beginning of Biologic Models

The first 3D print I ever created was of my favorite protein, oxygenated hemoglobin, the protein inside red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body. The model was beautiful — you could see every atom of hemoglobin, perfectly round, each sized according to its atomic size. Knowing exactly where to look, I could point out the structural units that bind oxygen molecules but I couldn’t point out the oxygen molecules deep inside the protein. So, as beautiful as the opaque 3D print was, I couldn’t point out the thing that made the model important. It became immediately clear that color coding was going to be necessary to make sense of the model.

That night I posted photos of the hemoglobin on my blog. The next week my first customer put in a bulk order for 50 hemoglobin models. I was through the roof with excitement. That order started a dialog between myself and a colleague who designed action figure toys. We talked through how we could adopt the manufacturing processes used to create action figure toys to lower the hemoglobin’s price point and solve our coloring problem. By casting pieces in multiple transparent colors, we could finally visualize the true sophistication and beauty of hemoglobin. Not long after, Wired wrote a short piece about our collaboration and the creation of the first “molecular action figure toy.”

High-Quality Prints, Shorter Workflow

The entire process took six months of trial and error to segment the model into parts that could then be cast from molds. The result was a scientific model far superior than I could have ever thought possible. The problem was that most customers don’t want 50 models — they only want one or two. While we had solved the problem of manufacturing protein models in bulk with color coding and transparency, the entire process far exceeded the budget of a customer to create a single 3D print.

The only reasonable solution was to begin printing in opaque, full-color sandstone. Full-color sandstone printers create beautiful 3D models, but the rough surface properties take away from their overall aesthetic. The intrinsic reflective and refractive properties of plastic immediately convey a higher sense of material quality than full-color sandstone and increase the model’s value as a work of art. When customers want a beautiful protein model to display in their lobby or museum, the J750 is the only printer I would consider using.

Thanks to the J750, I will be able to print multi-colored transparent scientific models while completely eliminating a costly and time-consuming fabrication and assembly process. It’s a game changer for me and my customers.

The Stratasys J750 printer is available now to select customers, with a full launch expected in 2019. Interested? Join our waiting list.