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Can a 3D print of an MRI scan help one man get his face back?

An unprecedented project from FabCafe Barcelona was not motivated by everyday curiosity or whimsy; in this case, it was motivated by trauma.

In early 2016, Michael K. suffered from serious injuries in a car accident; there was damage to his face that required multiple stages of surgery.

Before going into his first surgery, an MRI scan was taken of his head and part of his neck to assess whether or not he had sustained trauma to his head. For a few months after the surgery, Michael K. experienced pain in his nose, and decided to submit himself to aesthetic surgery in order to correct it. 

While performing the surgery, the surgeon corrected the tip and bridge of Michael K’s nose as planned, but also made adjustments to Michael K’s jawline based on a profile he was given – the problem was, the profile included photographs of someone else, not Michael K. That’s right. The surgeon had received the wrong profile. In using the incorrect photographs as his guide, the surgeon had altered Michael K’s face to the point that Michael K. no longer had his own face; he was unrecognizable.

As one might imagine, this caused trauma, disbelief, and anger. Michael K. spent many months at home, secluded, until he decided to take ownership over the situation: he set out to sue the hospital where the surgery was performed. In order to do that, he would need proof that the mistake could have been avoided if the surgeon was using not only the correct profile, but a reference point even more accurate than a 2D photograph.

Michael K. began connecting the dots. The most nuanced imaging of his face that existed were his recent MRI scans. What if he could fabricate a 3D model of his face based on this MRI scan making the asset tangible, more robust and realistic? He decided to pursue the idea of fabrication and reached out to FabCafe in Barcelona, a community for DIY fabricators to model and make. They had the appropriate equipment and a dedicated team of three people led by David Tena, the head of FabCafe Barcelona.

David, the head of FabCafe Barcelona on the far left.

The team at FabCafe heard Michael K’s story and immediately felt compelled to help him. In order to model the most accurate depiction of his face, they wondered if it was possible to merge multiple MRI scans – the scan that included his original, untouched jawline before the surgery, and a scan of his face now with the nose shape he was happy with, after the surgery. The challenge would be in merging the two scans to form a composite as close to an accurate bust of Michael K’s face; the team hadn’t done it before, but were committed.

“Back then, no one on the team had previous experience with organic modeling, only objects or similar, so we thought it was a huge challenge to accomplish,” Tena recalls. “At first we only did some minor changes that Michael K. specifically asked for as tests of the quality of the print. It took awhile for Michael K. to actually confide in us [and share] his story. When he did, we were motivated to help him in any way we could.”

Screen capture of 3D modeling process.

Over the course of three months, the team worked tirelessly to merge the scans and refine the final bust to get it as close to Michael K’s original and ideal facial structure. They also got in touch with a surgeon who worked closely to help them refine the details. In addition to a 3D-printed skull, the team printed a realistic skin layer made of silicon. This silicon layer was placed on top of the 3D printed skull. Each test print took 72 hours to print.

3D printed skull with silicon layer placed on the top.

While it was very time consuming, there was a happy, gratifying ending: the surgeon agreed to perform a surgery using the model, and it was a success. Michael K. got his face back.

While it’s not every day that FabCafe Barcelona gets to take on challenges as unique and life-altering as this one, the team and visitors are constantly learning and making. It is, after all, modeled after the original FabCafe in Tokyo, a space where people can come together, connect with each other, and use a variety of digital fabrication tools including laser cutters and 3D printers. Visitors are able to bring their digital data and floating ideas to life.

“FabCafe has always had the vision to get technology closer to people,” Tena says. “Michael K’s case was a clear example of this vision, as he found it much easier to overcome his fears of sharing his experience by coming to the cafeteria, checking how everything worked, and building up the courage to come forward and ask how we could help him.”

As of 2018, FabCafe has expanded to 10 locations in 7 countries around the world. This global network of FabCafe owners meets virtually once a month to exchange ideas, share expertise, and collaborate on global events like the YouFab Creative Awards. The team also meets once a year in person to set priorities and plan for the upcoming year.

David, the head of FabCafe Barcelona.

When asked what he hopes for FabCafe’s future, Tena says: “I see FabCafe as a growing network of places where people like Michael K. can come to create, investigate, or to simply have fun and learn new things while being able to have casual conversations with both the staff and other visitors. When more FabCafes open around the world, the experiences of more people with different problems and ways to approach these problems will grow and [ultimately] enrich the community.”

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About FabCafe
FabCafe is a series of cafés that offer digital fabrication tools and experiences, as well as a good ol’ cup of Joe. Founded in Tokyo, it was the first café in the world to house equipment such as laser cutters and 3D printers. Today, FabCafe’s global network serves and fosters creative communities in 10 locations around the world, including Bangkok, Barcelona, Hong Kong and many more.  

FabCafe Barcelona

FabCafe Barcelona - Head of Operations

David Tena Vicente

Physicist turned entrepreneur, David is the head of operations of FabCafe Barcelona. With a passion for divulging about technology and how can the citizenship benefit from it, David gives several workshops about digital fabrication and robotics at FabCafe, most of them being free following FabCafe’s vision of democratising technology, and has also taught at several universities of Barcelona.

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