Dr. Jorge Zuniga is the director of the 3D Innovation Lab at Creighton University. He has been working at the lab for three years and has watched it grow from a small space at Creighton to a soon to be state-of-the-art facility at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).
We recently sat down with Dr. Zuniga to talk about the future of the 3D Innovation Lab, his career, and his best advice to jobseekers.
AIM: What goes on at the 3D Innovation Lab?
About two and a half years ago, we started a project which focuses on developing 3D printed prosthetic devices for children at a low cost. People ask me why we have a special focus on children and it’s because they outgrow their devices so rapidly. Another reason we do it is because prosthetics are so expensive. We are able to give them these devices for free because it is under the umbrella of research and they are technically biomedical devices. Distributing these devices to people in need helps us make the devices better and better each time.
AIM: How is the project having a global impact?
When we started this project, we put all of our [3D device] files online so that anyone could access them for free. We’ve had a huge impact. We receive thousands of photos from people from across the world using our patterns. They send us pictures from Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Syria, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Egypt, China, Russia– tons of places. I still cannot believe it!
These individuals managed to go to their local library or wherever, and they downloaded the files and printed them. I have an online manual as well, so they can read and figure out how to assemble the devices. It also tells them how to size it according to age.
AIM: Can you tell me more about the move to UNO?
We’re going to move our whole lab there. We’re projected to have state-of-the-art equipment and one of the most advanced labs in the nation.
Right now our current facilities only allow us to do upper limbs. This new facility will let us work on lower limbs as well.
UNO is also allowing me to work on this full time, which is a huge opportunity. They are also letting me bring my entire team with me, and we are going to add some new people, most likely from Omaha South High School.
AIM: Can you tell me more about the future partnership between the lab and Omaha South High School?
We are partnering with Omaha South High School to develop a program at the Biomechanics Research Building at UNO that allows 10 to 15 hispanic females to learn about 3D printing, additive manufacturing and 3D modeling. These new skills are going to be huge in the next five years in the biomedical industry which is why this is such a great opportunity for these individuals.
The school has a robotics team that is made up mostly of hispanic females. We’re going to select a few of them right out of high school to work with people that have vast experience in the field. Imagine how it feels for a family that wouldn’t have that opportunity otherwise? It’s going to be a life-changing experience for them.
AIM: Why is this project so important to you?
JZ: I’m very empathetic. I really feel the pain of these kids and their families. I feel their hope, their stress, their happiness and excitement, and that makes us work very hard.
AIM: What did you do before the 3D printing and prosthetics project?
JZ: I was studying human movement of elite athletes and children. Slowly, I started leaning towards individuals that had more difficulties.
One day I heard a report on the NPR that changed everything. They were telling a story about someone in South Africa making prosthetic hands and then something clicked. That’s how the whole project started.
AIM: What’s been your favorite project that you’ve worked on at the lab?
JZ: I have a lot of favorite projects, but building the 3D prosthetic shoulder was probably my favorite. There was a man who needed a prosthetic shoulder, which would usually cost him around $40,000. We developed the shoulder for $200, and the family received it for free because it was research. It was the most difficult project to complete and there’s nothing like it anywhere else.
AIM: How do you think projects like yours are going to influence the future of Omaha and Nebraska?
JZ: I truly believe that Omaha is going to be well known for 3D printing and innovation, it kind of already is. All of the work we’re doing in combination with what Do Space is doing is amazing.
We’re also currently working with an OBGYN on a project in which we will do ultrasounds of babies and make three-dimensional objects of them so that people with vision impairment can feel what their babies looks like.
There’s a lot of people doing different things and now UNO is probably going to have one of the most advanced facilities in the nation, so I think Nebraska is really going to be put on the map for this technology.
AIM: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome while working on this project?
JZ: My biggest challenge has been infrastructure and resources. Right now, it’s extremely difficult for people to get to our facilities, I also don’t have many master students, and have very little funding.
But this move to UNO is going to give us access to an appropriate level of funding, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and it’s going to be full of engineers that are wanting to work on this with us. This move to UNO is going to change our project in a very significant way.
AIM: What is your first memory of interacting with technology?
JZ: Many people say this, but I used to take my toys apart. That’s something that I still do with my son a lot.
When I was younger, I took an electric motor of a toy and I put a piece of wood on the motor and I made a helicopter out of it. That was eye opening to me. I’m from South America and that was the only toy I had. The best thing I could have done was to take it apart. Of course, my mom and dad were very mad because they had to save a lot of money to buy that toy, but it paid off I suppose.
AIM: What is the biggest piece of advice you give to your students?
JZ: I tell them to be persistent and to never give up. I’m having a hard time getting that message to younger folks because we live in a world that is full of instant gratification. We live in a world where things typically work, but when you’re innovating, 80 percent of the time things are not going to work. So being able to handle frustration is key.
I live in a world of frustration. I live in a world where things don’t work. When they do work, it feels amazing. If I can find a way to tell younger kids how to handle frustration, and to embrace mistakes, they are going to have less fear to try new things.
You also have to be passionate. I spent so many years of my life writing papers and researching things that nobody cared about. Now I have this opportunity that’s going to have an impact on children around the world, so why not do this full time? It’s very exciting.
Are you interested in finding a career in IT? Check out the latest openings here.
Brilliant People of Omaha: A series of discovery.
Welcome to Brilliant People of Omaha. In this series we will sit down with local brilliant individuals who love their jobs, have excellent career advice and are ready to share their story about how they came into their current position.
We will talk to a variety of people in this series including: developers, designers, managers, CEOs, interns, etc. Everyone has a story, and we are here to uncover it and see what we can learn from the brilliant people around us.
Do you have someone you’d like to nominate as a brilliant person of Omaha? Drop Melanie Lucks a line at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.