Metal 3D Printing used to make tusk caps for endangered walruses.Follow article
Researchers from the École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS) and Université de Montréal in Canada have 3D printed protective ‘crowns’ for the tusks of an endangered walrus at the nearby Aquarium du Québec.
A combination of being hunted between the 17th and 19th centuries for their ivory, meat and blubber, in addition to oil and gas drilling reducing the amount of available sea ice, has led to their extinction in the once populous areas of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
In order to help the endangered species to reproduce and raise awareness of their plight, the Aquarium de Québec has taken them in. However, this change in habitat has led to a number of serious issues for the mammals.
Walruses use their tusks to pull themselves out of the water and to help them with walking. In their natural habitat, of ice and soil, this poses no problems. However, their new home is comprised of concrete, metal and other strong materials that are specifically designed to hold these creatures that are capable of growing to more than a tonne in weight. These materials are not well-suited to their dental needs and could lead to them becoming vulnerable to dental abscesses.
3D Printed Dental Care
In order to protect the animals and to prevent any further damage, a team of veterinary experts decided that they could produce a made-to-measure metal cap that could be fitted to the tusks.
The first patient was a 400kg female. She was found to be at particular risk of cracking or fracturing her tusks.
Although other tusk-caps have been developed in the past, the team decided that 3D printing was the approach that they wanted to take, rather than conventional production processes. This enabled them to create different iterations of the design which offered clearances of between 0.25mm and 0.45 mm to the tusk. The different size options allowed the procedure’s veterinary surgeon to choose the optimal device, that wouldn’t weaken the adhesive’s bond, or prevent it from fitting tightly to the ivory.
They also worked to assess which metal could be 3D printed and would be the most suitable for the device. Ultimately the researchers opted for cobalt chrome, as it would prevent repetitive rubbing, whilst being resistant to oxidisation in saltwater.
To add extra complexity, anaesthesia can be deadly for this particular species of walrus, meaning that they instead had to train the walrus to remain still for long periods and reward her with a treat.
Ultimately, she managed to stay steady for five minutes, which allowed the veterinary expert to fit one of the 3D printed devices successfully. According to the researchers, it was a combination of the crown’s unique production process, and the bond between the mammal and her trainer, which made the overall procedure possible.