The 2023 AMUG Conference showcased one of the greatest attributes of being involved in this event as an attendee, sponsor or speaker – and that is the networking opportunities. While AMUG touts this as a grand and rewarding outcome, it was a cornerstone of the keynote presentation by Nicholas Jacobson and Rob Ducey, titled: “Collaborations between an Animator, an Architect, and a Surgeon”.

A stroke of luck

The collaboration journey began with a chance meeting at AMUG 2019, where the pair discovered a shared interest in voxel printing. Working together and combining completely different backgrounds and skills, their combined efforts delivered innovations for pediatric epilepsy, cardiology, and cleft palate in the form of medical models and devices. The question that has guided their work is: “How can we represent the body better than anything else that’s out there?”

Rob Ducey is the technical supervisor at LAIKA Studios, where he oversees the application of additive manufacturing for visual effects and animation in the company’s films. Nicholas Jacobson is on the Colorado University Anschutz Medical Campus faculty and trained as an architect and a computational designer.

Ducey and LAIKA have been using voxel printing to capture the small nuances of facial expressions in stop-motion animation of characters in films such as Missing Link and Coraline. Jacobson and his team used voxel printing for structural analysis and FEA as they were discovering the ability to fabricate fine features with complexity, gradient, and colour. The crossover between them was in constructing 3D models from 2D images, leveraging voxel printing to produce better results in the medical models. To illustrate the limitations of 2D medical images and highlight the power of the voxel, Ducey and Jacobson asked the audience to use a sheet of paper to replicate a brain. The outcomes were predictably poor. The pair then instructed the attendees to model a heart with Play-Doh. Although few had medical backgrounds, the results were not representative of that organ.

Taking a superior approach

Having made the point that a volumetric approach is superior, Ducey and Jacobson then shared how they leverage voxels, and other digital tools, to refine the details that are communicated through pre-surgical models. In their journey, they applied computational modelling and materials development while deciphering voxel-level tuning to improve the medical modelling outcomes. Ducey and Jacobson offered three case reviews where their work was used to improve patient care. The first was a child with a “one-in-a-million” heart condition; she had one valve instead of four. The second was a brain tumour case. The third was for an epilepsy case with the extraordinary development of probing the brain during a seizure to create a roadmap for the surgeon’s resection.

The keynote presentation concluded with advances made to cleft palate repair. As Jacobson’s team was developing treatment using an orthotic device, it leveraged Ducey’s experience with modelling and printing tiny facial movements in stop-motion animation. That background was incorporated into an adjustable orthotic, called a nasoalveolar molding (NAM), that coaxes palate movement to close the cleft. NAMs are a current standard of treatment that require weekly clinical visits for adjustments. The innovation behind Ducey’s and Jacobson’s work is to 3D print the NAM devices and supply them to parents, eliminating the weekly visits to NAM clinics, which are scarce. Globally, cleft palate occurs in about one in 1,000 births. With their innovative approach, Ducey and Jacobson could provide more access and convenience while improving surgical outcomes and reducing the number of surgeries.

Through the unlikely collaboration, initiated by networking at AMUG 2019, great strides are being made in the medical field. And the pair stated that “new ideas emerge daily”. That is the power unleashed when an animator, architect and surgeon combine different skills, backgrounds and experiences to tackle medical care.