Rice University bioengineering researchers have modified a commercial-grade CO2 laser cutter to create OpenSLS: an open-source, selective laser sintering platform that prints intricate 3D objects from powdered plastics and biomaterials.

OpenSLS, which was built using low-cost, open-source microcontrollers, cost less than $10,000 to build.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machines generally do not allow users to fabricate objects with their own powdered materials, which is particularly important for researchers who want to experiment with biomaterials for regenerative medicine and other biomedical applications.

The Rice University machine prints a series of intricate objects from both nylon powder — a commonly used material for high-resolution 3D sintering — and from polycaprolactone, or PCL, a nontoxic polymer that is commonly used to make templates for studies on engineered bone.

OpenSLS works differently than most traditional extrusion-based 3D printers, which create objects by squeezing melted plastic through a needle as they trace out two-dimensional patterns. Three-dimensional objects are then built up from successive 2D layers.

In contrast, the SLS laser shines down onto a flat bed of plastic powder. The laser melts or sinters the powder at the laser’s focal point to form a small volume of solid material. By tracing the laser in two dimensions, the printer can fabricate a single layer of the final part.