The Integration of 3D Printing and Virtual Reality Creates R&D Tax Credit Opportunities

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The 3D Printing and Virtual Reality industries lead some of the most fast-paced innovations in the global market. When the two are consolidated, the benefits to the global market and everyday users are significant. An integration of 3D printing and VR has brought change to the medical, educational, and design sectors and will continue to advance these fields and many more. Now, designers and firms engaging in innovative integration of 3D printing and Virtual Reality are eligible for state and federal R&D tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Medical Advancements

Possibly some of the most profound improvements to the medical field come from a combination of 3D printing and Virtual Reality. EchoPixel is an advanced medical visualization software package that gives doctors the ability to interact with virtual models of patients. Doctors can also 3D print patient organs for hands-on experience before procedures. Medical centers, including Stanford University, UCSF, Cleveland Clinic, and Cook Children’s Hospital, already utilize this technology and incorporate it into heart surgeries. A cardiologist at Cook Children’s Medical Center said:

“Having this technology, in addition to 3D printing capabilities, allowed Cook Children’s cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons to improve the planning of complex procedures and surgeries.”

This is further evidenced in recent analysis of a patient’s colon suffering from Crohn’s disease.

Larry Smarr, a professor at UCSD, agreed to create a 3D immersive replication of his intestines after he discovered he had Crohn’s disease. Visitors could walk around the room and watch the inflamed parts of his intestines eventually become closed off. When they did and he realized he needed surgery, Smarr brought his doctor in to see the image in VR. The doctor used this visual environment to determine the exact measurements for the cutting procedure. She even discovered implications that would make the surgery more challenging to complete. It was noted that she would not have discovered the implications without the use of the VR intestinal replication. The doctor, as well as Smarr, made 3D printed replicas of the colon based off the Virtual Reality images to use as reference. Just as heart and brain surgical doctors employ 3D printing to enhance accuracy, so too will professionals performing abdominal and colon procedures.

[Image: Mayo Clinic]

The most astounding integration of VR and 3D printing is in the recent life-changing face transplant of Andrew Sandness. In 2006, he experienced a self-inflicted rifle shot destroying his chin, mouth, and nose—his face was barely recognizable. Cosmetic reconstruction would not work but that did not deter the Mayo Clinic’s efforts in facial reconstructions surgery. In 2012, it began research to undergo complete face transplant surgery. In 2016, Sandness became the first patient. The surgery was successful as Mayo Clinic relied on a 3D printed surgical guide and model to help the team of 12 doctors perform a 56-hour surgery requiring precise cutting and fitting of the new tissue to the face. Andrew Sandness is pictured on the left, shortly after the surgery and his face accepted the new tissues.

One of the doctors from Mayo Clinic explained:

“Using this technology of 3D modeling, printing, and virtual surgical planning is extremely beneficial. They would have cutting guides for us that we would clip on the bones. They would give us the exact location of the cut, exact angle of the cut, so when we took the donor’s face and put it on the recipient, it would fit perfectly.”

It is astonishing to see what is possible with the combination of VR and 3D printing. With it, doctors can make more precise decisions in crucial, life-changing surgeries. Continuous improvements in this integration of VR and 3D printing are expected to bring more revolutionary changes to the medical industry.

Advancing Education

Various companies and institutions are beginning to employ integrated VR in 3D printing to enhance training and educational environments. For example, 3D Systems acquired Simbionix, a 3D VR surgical simulation and training company, in 2014. This company offers 3D printed models geared towards medical training and device testing and physicians preparing for upcoming procedures. Coupled with 3D simulators, physicians and students alike can gain hands-on experience in medical training without impacting human patients.

On the other spectrum, NASA created a training module for astronauts combining Virtual Reality with 3D printing. The module provides a Hybrid Reality System with off-the-shelf Unreal Engine 4 VR software, physical mockups and models, wearable technology, and room-scale tracking. This is one of the most immersive and realistic training scenarios possible, all at a low expense. NASA incorporates 3D printing in this training program by printing mockups of the tools and control surfaces in the VR environment. By combining the physical mockups with VR graphics, users experience the feel and application of the training program but in the real world. This was not possible before, especially since the only way traditional training could be tested was when the astronauts were sent out to space on a mission. One of the creators of this novel environment remarked about its significance:

“Using 3D scanning, we’re able to make [models] look extremely realistic, so you can learn how to use the tool inside virtual reality.”

This combination not only means creating training environments that come at a lower cost, but also giving trainees a more thorough and practical understanding of what to do and not to do when embarking on a space expedition.

UC San Diego further developed efforts to create a flexible glove that gives a user the physical impression that he is playing a piano in a VR environment. The Jacobs School of Engineering 3D printed a mold to make the glove’s soft exoskeleton, with the intention of providing a richer experience in VR but also making it applicable to other settings, including surgery and video games (the glove is featured on the right, above). The team’s goal was “to make the user feel like they’re in the actual environment form a tactile point of view.” The reason feel is made possible is because when the user moves his fingers, the McKibben muscle, latex chambers of braided fibers, responds like a spring. The McKibben muscle will inflate or deflate, depending on the force from the fingers as it also interacts with the computer displaying the virtual piano. This application has the potential to shape how students learn to play the piano and other instruments in the future. This would potentially offer a less expensive alternative to purchasing a piano and hiring private tutors. As previously mentioned, this advancement would also benefit other industries where training and application through Virtual Reality are becoming more prevalent. With the ability to feel the environment that one is virtually engaged in, the learning experience will become more enriched and beneficial to its users.

Finally, Yale University partnered with HP to bring VR to classroom settings via the Blended Reality Project. By combining Virtual Reality with 3D printing, professors and students test cases to blend reality in an educational environment.  A multitude of tests are being undergone during the next months. For example, one student is experimenting how to create life-sized 3D holograms without the use of viewing equipment. Another project team recently made successful 3D models of reference birds for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. With 3D virtual modeling, the team made models that could be scaled and manipulated in any way before 3D printing. It was found the overall process to replace the bird replicas was reduced from weeks to merely days.

Artwork & Design

[Image: Giovanni Nakpil via Instagram/Mashable]

Now, artists and designers are using VR environments to 3D print new artistic concepts. Many use Oculus Medium, a VR sculpting application, to create models and 3D print them. One artist Giovanni Nakpil created a detailed 3D printed ogre model that, when people saw for the first time, appeared to not be virtually rendered (the ogre is pictured on the right). The artist explained,

“The 3D printing output retained my Oculus Medium paint almost exactly…I did not do any sanding or any post-print work.”

Oculus Medium is available to consumers, giving everyone the ability to create anything imaginable and then have it 3D printed almost immediately. This eliminates extensive training required to learn how to use traditional CAD (computer-aided design) applications. Because this training deterrence is eliminated, the average person can engage in VR designing and 3D printing. Those engaged in the 3D printing industry are excited to see this change in VR application since “t will definitely open up the content pipeline. And if the content is easy to create, then more and more people will start using 3D printing.” VR-to-3D printing is gaining traction and it is only a matter of time before more of the general public is jumping on the bandwagon.

In Australia, scientists are quickly exploring a combination of VR and 3D printing to recreate dinosaurs. Students at Deakin University are using recently discovered bone bits of a dinosaur to create its 3D model. Once the design is complete, they intend to 3D print the dinosaur into its full-size rendering. Their efforts do not end here. After printing, the team plans to create a Virtual Reality environment that brings the 3D printed model to life. The project’s co-founder says about their intentions:

“We’re looking at how we can use Virtual Reality and 3D printing to help with providing educational experiences in a museum context.”

The team plans to make the dinosaur as realistic as possible by scanning lizards with similar scaly textures and 3D printing it onto their model.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

In England, the Royal Academy of Arts had an exhibit in January 2017 in which young artists could create their own Virtual Reality worlds and 3D print them. In this exhibit, visitors walked through the virtual worlds of artists and saw 3D printed renderings from the virtual landscape. This creates an entirely new medium and form of artwork, in which visitors become immersed in virtual artwork displays that are more than just a standalone sculpture or still painting. One artist, Jessy Jetpack, created a Mars-like environment with dancing female figures and electronic music composed and performed by her. She explains about her artwork,

“You cannot have my work without the audio. At times, it is like a fully immersive music video.”

Then, once the visitor took the VR equipment off, he looked upon a 3D printed sculpture of something that appeared in the virtual display, thus bringing the virtual creation to a real-life, tangible artwork.


The combination of Virtual Reality and 3D printing has the ability to completely change the global market and various industries. Medical, educational, and artistic advancements are made possible with the flick of a VR controller and a 3D printer. This integration is changing the way we learn about diseases, surgical procedures, and artistic forms. It is only a matter of time before more of the general public uses a Virtual Reality environment and 3D printer to enhance their education and artistic and design capabilities. Now, those engaging in innovative integrations of Virtual Reality and 3D printing are eligible for federal and state R&D tax credits.


Charles Goulding and Chloé Margulis of R&D Tax Savers write about 3D printing and virtual reality.


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