Makers in Anatomy

I’m off to the Summer Meeting of the Anatomical Society next week, and thought I’d share a bit about my 3D printing anatomy Artist Residency here on my yoga blog. This meeting is themed around Anatomy Education, which is of course a major theme in my work.


Humans make models of the world in order to understand it better. Like many yogis out there, my interest in yoga philosophy and practice stems from this same urge to get a grip on reality. After decades of drawing, painting, making models, and experimenting with other artists, I found the medium of 3D printing to be perhaps the most interesting for its cross-disciplinary nature. So I doggedly pursue this anatomical model project, as much for reasons stemming from connection to other creative people in the spirit of experimentation as any other. I am not even particularly knowledgable about 3D printing as a technique; the technicalities have been Ralph’s domain (my collaborator at 3d Printworks). My area has been the academic research and, of course, obsession with understanding anatomy and developing tactile ways of teaching it.

The field of Human Anatomy is host to some of the most elegant models of the natural world ever produced, as for millennia we have grappled with the boundaries and substance of what it is to have a body. During the early stages of my MSc investigation, I researched key factors shaping the modernisation of anatomical model-making through the decades leading up to the digital age. The investigation continued through the advancement of visualisation, education, and the accelerating power of Informatics. The key points of this research were illustrated through my process of using open-source datasets from BodyParts3D. This dataset contains arrays of human anatomy units modelled from a variation of the Visible Human project in conjunction with the Foundational Model of Anatomy, a primary anatomical ontology.

I 3D printed several of these anatomical structures, exploring the medium of 3D printing for making models of anatomy for educational purposes. The project developed from merely printing out individual body parts to looking at how the medium of 3D printing could enable prints of functional models of anatomical areas of interest showing the natural connectivity of fascia, ligaments, tendons, and their actions across the bones. This poster is about the collaboration between private sector plastics engineer and inventor, Ralph McNeill, and myself as the artist/anatomist. This collaboration aims to produce a functional model of tensegrity inherent in the rotator cuff, using the BodyParts3D dataset and lower-end 3D printer components commonly available online.

The development of 3D human anatomy visualisation techniques since the advent of Informatics in the 1960s is prolific. 3D printing is revolutionising anatomy education and clinical practice vis-à-vis the advancing language of the semantic web. Anatomical Informatics is a semantic model of anatomy. When used in conjunction with real data from the medical imaging sector (PACS), 3D modelling takes data to the next level of visualisation. The medium of 3D printing is expansive in its potential as an educational tool for understanding complex ontological relationships, such as those found in anatomy, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

In this project, we are exploring the question: What materials are most suitable to 3D print a tensegrity structure in the form of a 3D printed fabric model of the extracellular matrix based on a rotator cuff of lifelike proportions? The limitations of most industrially-produced models of anatomy are largely in the rudimentary manner of their articulations; ie, the use of bolts and screws fastening together an average shoulder girdle model. We have developed a prototype model of the shoulder girdle printed in two different materials simultaneously, bringing the project closer to a more refined model of anatomy where the 3D printed tissues express forces through the articulations along more realistic vectors without the use of bolts or screws.

Looking forward to sharing the love of all things anatomy at this meeting next week in Brighton!


Leave a Reply

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