European researchers are relentless in their pursuit to develop technologies across the board. Case in point is medical technology and bone implants. Enter a team of researchers from the Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research who have developed a simulation programme calculating the internal structure and density distribution of bone material.

The production of bone implants with a structure similar to natural bone is being produced easily. The initial step in this process is the calculation of the bone's internal structure and porosity, followed by the 'baking' of the implant from metal powder. The second step is conducted in a prototyping machine.

Scientists involved in the production of bone implants look to nature for resources, taking a close look at the structure of bone and how it is constructed. While bones are light, they have the capacity to tolerate strong loads. Also, the interior of bone is sponge-like but firm and compact in some areas.

With this in mind, the Fraunhofer team rose to the challenge of the lightweight construction industry which asked 'How can this be replicated?' The researchers successfully developed a simulation programme that shows how bone structure must be constructed in order to meet the specified requirements.

This latest development gives engineers the means to produce complex components with the help of rapid prototyping technology. The process focuses on coating a surface with wafer-thin layers of special metal powder. A laser beam sinters (heats without melting) ores or powdery metals into a coherent mass in the areas that must be firm.

"It's like baking a cake," explains Andreas Burblies, a representative for the Fraunhofer Numerical Simulation of Products, Processes Alliance. "The end product is an open-pored element. Any remaining loose powder is then removed. Each point possesses exactly the right density and thus also a certain stability," he adds.

Engineers can now make lightweight components that are tailor-made for each application. The upshot is that these components will be able to withstand heavy loads. The research team has also given the engineers the means to change the internal structure of the parts once they are produced through precision drilling.

"We can manufacture and adapt the parts exactly as required," Mr Burblies says. Experts have said that the production of individual implants with an internal structure that is similar to a patient's bone is not difficult. Biomaterials-based metal powders, like steel alloys and titanium, give engineers an edge because reconstruction of other bone elements is made easy. This innovative technique will draw in several industries, including bone implants production, and aircraft and automobile manufacturers.

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