3D Printing Medical Prototypes drives Surgical Innovation

The University of Iowa, located in Iowa City, modernized its education methods by increasing its focus on research with a prototyping lab to enable more innovative research and medical prototypes.

Additionally, the university collaborates with the community and medical professionals to improve their own practices, and to help local businesses find investors for new products. With its prototyping lab and education programs, the University is helping surgeons, local entrepreneurs and students go further and find new ways to innovate for the future.

The university’s push for research and economic development resulted in the creation of Protostudios, a state-of-the-art rapid prototyping facility at MERGE, a nearby entrepreneurship and innovation center. Protostudios helps surgeons at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics create medical models and tools that fit their needs. “One of the problems the surgeons were having was a lack of face-to-face communication that often extended time in developing their ideas. Local prototyping capabilities were insufficient.

With advanced 3D printing capabilities, surgeons are able to make surgical tools, guides and accurate anatomical models for pre-operative preparation. One surgeon decided to 3D print a surgical model through Protostudios after disappointing results from multiple attempts to make models with traditional methods. Romans said “I was able to print four different materials in one prototype model to simulate what he was trying to accomplish. I recreated his medical prototype concept in one day and that’s one of the reasons he keeps calling me for more projects, the fact that I can do this so quickly and so consistently.”

3D printed Caroline Guide

Multiple iterations of the Caroline Guide were printed on the F370 FDM printer for ergonomic and functional evaluations before the final model was fabricated in metal

3D Printing medical prototypes

These results were made possible after Protostudios and the university invested in a Stratasys J750™ Digital Anatomy 3D printer and an F370™ FDM® printer. Now surgical guides and prototypes are just as easy to obtain as they are to print. “Surgeons love these parts because of the high resolution and quality. They are prototyping tools they can’t find anywhere else,” said Romans. “I’m able to turn around their ideas and have a proof of concept completed within a matter of weeks compared to years.” One example is the Caroline Guide developed by Dr. Matthew Howard, M.D., Head of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Iowa. This surgical guide was prototyped using the F370 printer to refine the design before the final version was made in metal. Prototyping using the 3D printer provided a much faster and cost effective path to optimize the guide’s design.

Striving for Students and Community

The university not only enables innovation in medicine, they also foster innovation and real-world experience in entrepreneurship. Through a university-specific program, students are able to collaborate with investors and customers and use their skills in a real-world environment. Romans explained, “These students will actually have direct contact with our clients, helping them with those product ideas and doing the prototyping, getting that hands-on experience. If we can get motivated students and give them connections with companies, including project work, our hope is those companies would hire those students.”


PolyJet 3D Printing

PolyJet is a powerful 3D printing technology that produces smooth, accurate parts, prototypes and tooling.

Stratasys PolyJet 3D Printers are based on proven technology, which creates precise prototypes that set  the standard for finished-product realism. Their fine resolution makes complex shapes, intricate details  and smooth surfaces possible. PolyJet 3D Printing works by jetting layers of liquid photo-polymer onto a build tray and instantly curing them with UV light. The fine layers build up to create a precise 3D model or prototype. Models are ready to handle right out of the 3D printer, with no post-curing needed.

Learn More


“Surgeons love these parts because of the speed and resolution. They are prototyping tools they can’t find anywhere else. I’m able to turn around their ideas within a matter of weeks compared to years.”

— Charles Romans, University of Iowa

Find more resources for topic: