Children with under-formed or missing ears can undergo surgeries to fashion a new ear from rib cartilage. Aspiring surgeons, however, lack lifelike practice models. A University of Washington otolaryngology resident and bioengineering student 3D-printed a low-cost pediatric rib cartilage model that more closely resembles the feel of real cartilage and allows for realistic surgical practice.

As part of the study, three experienced surgeons practiced carving, bending, and suturing the UW team’s silicone models, which were produced from a 3D printed mold modeled from a CT scan of an 8-year-old patient. The CT scan was processed through a series of free, open-source modeling and imaging programs.

The surgeons compared the material's firmness, feel, and suturing quality to real rib cartilage, as well as a more expensive material made out of dental impression material. All three surgeons preferred the UW models.

The team’s next steps are to get the models into the hands of surgeons and surgeons-in-training, and to hopefully demonstrate that more lifelike practice models can elevate their skills and abilities.