On Science, Engineering, and the Future of 3D-printing

An Interview with Adam Jakus

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Adam Jakus's image, 3D-Printed Hyperelastic Bone Material, won 2nd place in the 2016 Science in Society Scientific Images Contest. 

Adam Jakus, PhD, is an alumni of the Shah Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing (TEAM) Lab at Northwestern University and is now the chief technology officer and founder at Dimension Inx, LLC. Adam is also a 3-time Science in Society Images Contest winner and was recently named a finalist by Index: Award 2017 for engineering Hyperelastic Bone. We caught up with Adam to ask about his research into new, 3D-printable materials, and to get his take on the differing roles of science and engineering.

What is your current research focus?

Currently I have many areas of focus, but the thread connecting all of my research is the development of new, functional 3D-printable materials and 3D-printing processes that are economical, scalable, and will enable the new manufacturing revolution.

Rather than focusing on the printing machines, I focus on creating new materials. Materials that, once printed, exhibit unique and highly advantageous properties, such as flexible ceramics.

How do you use 3D-printers to create new (as in, they don’t exist until you create them) materials?

These materials are part of a new 3D-printable material system I developed. I call it “3D-painting.” It’s like this: if you are painting the walls of your home, you do not change the way you paint just because you change the color. Why can’t we extend this same thought process to manufacturing and the development of new materials technologies?

So I develop new materials and material platform technologies that enable a single manufacturing machine (or 3D-printer) to 3D-print with any and all materials. I can get the same printer to print anything from biological tissues related to specific organs, to metals and alloys, ceramics, energy materials, and even extraterrestrial materials for off-Earth manufacturing.

My current work also focuses on scaling and translating materials so that they have value beyond the laboratory and academic publications. This includes materials like hyperelastic bone, 3D-graphene, and tissue papers (all winners of Science in Society’s scientific images contest).

Why is your research relevant and important to society?

New manufacturing technologies have allowed us to rapidly create materials and devices that were science fiction just a few years ago, and have enabled new lines of research and development.

These new lines of research and manufacturing capabilities – enabled by the 3D-painting technology I develop – directly impact everyday lives. For example: medical technologies like hyperelastic bone. This regenerative biomaterial is not only highly-functional in terms of repairing and regenerating bone, but is also surgically-friendly and can be produced rapidly using simple, existing 3D-printing technologies.

This technology has many applications in bone repair and regeneration, but it fills a very special need in pediatrics, where the patients – children – are still growing, and implants and repair materials do not effectively grow with the patient, which results in additional surgeries. New biomaterials, like hyperelastic bone, open the door for new medical technologies that can improve and even save the lives of patients. 

Adam Jakus headshotWhat led you to a career in science and engineering?

I had a brother, two years my senior, who was born with a terminal congenital heart condition and spent his whole life in and out of hospitals. He died at 7 years old.

I don’t know where his interest in science came from, but some of my earliest memories are looking at science, nature, and engineering books with him. Everything, from geology to space travel, seemed cool and interesting in those books.

After he died, my interest remained, and up until the end of high school, I was always building and repairing this and that, and trying the figure out the “why.”

When it was time to apply for college, I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to do because I loved all the science and engineering subjects. I ended up at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and entered Materials Science and Engineering, which, at the time, was a relatively new field. I loved the idea of being able to create new materials – since everything is made of materials, right?

At Georgia Tech, I was involved in research, primarily in ballistics and energetic materials in a laboratory focused on metallurgy.

How did you transition from researching metals to engineering new biological tissues?

After five years at Georgia Tech, I realized I wanted to apply my knowledge to the field of biomaterials and tissue engineering, which generally seemed to be lacking in good materials science and engineering knowledge. The 3D-printing aspect of my work was mostly serendipitous. 

Universities, and people in research in general, seem to place imaginary walls between fields (physics, chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, materials engineering, etc.), but these walls are just that: imaginary. There is absolutely no reason why designing a functioning organ should be any different or more challenging than designing a new alloy or piece of electronics; and there is no reason that each area needs to be relegated to specific areas of study.

Approaching a field with a different set of eyes and set of skills has enormous value. The tissue engineering approaches and materials I have developed are the direct result of my seemingly unrelated knowledge and training in metallurgy and energetic material processing. 

Do you identify as a scientist, engineer, or both?

Both. But primarily an engineer. My BS, MS, and PhD degrees are all in engineering, and I technically have no degrees in science, so from an academic perspective I am an engineer.

What separates science from engineering?

Science and engineering lie on the same, continuous knowledge and technology spectrum. However, it is best to define them in their purest forms (at the extremes of the spectrum) to appreciate the differences.

 In my opinion, pure science is asking a question and seeking an answer. The pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It ultimately doesn’t matter what that knowledge is: all new knowledge and new understanding has value.

Albert Einstein and other early theoretical physics of the early 20th century, for example, wanted to learn more about the universe. Their primary question was “why”. And their scientific motivation did not necessarily have a goal or application in mind.

Pure engineering, on the other hand, is very goal driven. What is the problem and how do we solve it within real-world technological, economic, political, and other constraints?

A pure and simple example of an engineering question: “I need to get from A to B in X hours and it can’t cost more than Y dollars and fail any more than Z times per years. What do I need to do?”

This is not to say that science does not play a role in addressing these problems. Scientific pursuits provide the knowledge base and toolbox to assemble engineering solutions. When Einstein introduced his famous E=MC^2 in 1905, it was a very nice physical theory and mathematical proof, but it had no practical application. However, his pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake – combined with the knowledge pursuits of Marie and Pierre Curie – are what ultimately provided the tools to develop nuclear technology. 

Of course, in real life, scientists and engineers fall on a spectrum, and the difference between the two is rarely so black and white. 

How do you know when to apply one school of thought over another?

In the simplest form, I ask myself: am I attempting to answer a question, or am I attempting to solve a specific problem? It’s all about a question versus a problem. However, addressing the problem may require answering questions along the way.

Anyone involved in research should be well-trained and aware of both the scientific method and the engineering method, and know when to apply each. 

Distinguishing between these methods is important because – as I often see in tissue engineering fields – researchers are developing new materials and approaches with complete disregard to the user (surgeon), economics, patient, or industrialization and manufacturing. If the research goal is to solve a problem, the challenge goes way beyond the technical solution, and must involve the context and other factors in the design process.

What advice do you have to those considering a career in science or engineering?

Just pursue what you are excited about. It may take a lot of exploring and exposure to different fields to find out what your passion is, and that is ok. Seek out opportunities to be exposed to different things, and know that everything is related and everything has value in every other field.

What do you like most about your job?

From a personal perspective, I like that I get to make and create things that I can hold. Things made of materials and properties that have never been observed before. It is very fulfilling knowing that at the end of the day, you can hold something in your hand that didn’t exist that same morning.

From a larger viewpoint, I like knowing that I am making materials and processes that will make a difference and improve people’s lives. I frequently talk with surgeons and practicing clinicians. I run my ideas and materials by them – and, more often, they tell me there is not only a need, but that the materials I am developing fill that need perfectly.

My favorite part of my job is getting out of the research laboratory and interacting with people in the “real” world. People who would be the end users and recipients (patients) of the technologies I am developing. If a technology does not make it out of the laboratory into the broader world, what does it matter?

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