The EOS machine was acquired with a US$600,000 capital equipment grant from the Veterans Administration. It is situated in the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus.

Richard Weir, PhD, a researcher in robotic technology for arm amputees, said the fabricator will allow his research team to develop better components for prosthetic fingers, hands and arms. Weir, an associate research professor in the Department of Bioengineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science, would also like to create a prototyping centre as a resource for other university and VA researchers.

"It's a whole new way of thinking about how to make things," Weir explained. "The revolutionary aspect is to be able to do stuff that you can't using conventional technology. There is the possibility to fabricate impossible-to-machine components and to explore whether that confers advantage to the designs we're working on."

Weir's lab had already been using a 3D plastic printer, but a metal prototyping machine dramatically expands the horizons for their prosthetic designs. Metal printing is still "a very nascent technology," Weir said, estimating that around two dozen direct metal laser sintering machines built by EOS e-Manufacturing Solutions are being used in the United States, mostly for biomedical and aeronautical applications.

The machine uses a three-dimensional digital image to methodically laser-sinter beads of metal powder into solid metal. Most components will be built overnight in the machine, which has a door that allows manufacturers to view the progress of each iterative design.

“For  things that don't have hard edges, like our bodies, it makes a world of difference," said Jacob Segil, CU-Boulder mechanical engineering professor. "To (create) something like our finger, which has curvature and intricacies, out of metal is a horribly difficult and expensive thing to do using conventional machining processes. Now we have a machine to do it."

Weir said he'd like to make the metal prototype machine accessible to other researchers, as has been done with the plastic 3D printer. "We have a lot of rapid-prototyping capability within three or four rooms here. Our hope is to start a sort of prototyping centre."

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