In the last few decades, the 4th industrial revolution began - a significant advance in the 3D technology and an emerging of a brand new production method - the computer-controlled additive/subtractive manufacturing. It is considered "the new wheel" and it gives the ability to generate a detailed three dimensional object with complicated geometry from various materials (metals, polymers, clay, biological macro molecules) with a robot, controlled by a computer. The size of the object don't really matters - it's possible to construct structures on micron level or entire buildings. The thing, which really matters, is the geometry of the model. The specialists in the 3D technology are able to bend the very fabric of the world in every shape, which is needed. In the medical field, this advancement of the 3D technology was combined with the rise of the computer-assisted imaging and the histological imaging techniques , visualizing the living (or already death) organisms in details, never seen before. This is how the profession of the medical 3D artist emerged, giving new hope and amazing possibilities for the presentation, diagnostics and treatment of the human body. It's a hybrid profession, which requires vast knowledge and experience in the medical, engineering and computer science. If you want to become one and you're wondering can you actually sell your work, this guide will be quite helpful for you.
As any other type of scientists, medical 3D artists have to choose his career path. It can lead to a career as academical professor, teaching students and performing theoretical experiments at a university or a science institute or as a industrial R&D specialist, creating practical products for the biomedical corporations. Both career options have their pros and cons, bot of them are saving lives. The difference is in the way of thinking. And the salary. For both of them the entrance requirement is a PhD in the field life or engineering science. So, in order to become a medical 3D artist, you need to go in the academy for a while, to endure the hell of the dissertation/thesis and to keep your sanity at the end. Once achieved, it's really hard to stay unemployed for long, those pesky talent seekers will jump on you like flies on manure.
1. Academical: The academical lives and thrives in his/hers institution. An office, a laboratory, some teaching obligations and the ability to work in the most cutting-edge fields of science and technology.
- More flexibility/freedom: the academical have a lot of free time, as long as the basic obligations towards the institution are satisfied.
- Intellectual autonomy: the academical can follow whatever idea he/she wants, as long as it's supported by the institution.
- Long term results: the academical things and acts in long period of time - one project can take an year, several year or the entire lifespan, depending on the project.
- Funding/salary issues: the academical is always underfunded and the salary sucks (unless he/she is well quoted, successful professor). This is why the problem-solving abilities and the high IQ are required for this career path.
- Strong ego and self-confidence: the academical things for themselves as geniuses, much smarter than the rest of the population (and in most cases they are right).
- Always “speaks theoretically”: the question "what if" is the breath and butter of the academia and it's really hard for the academical to be practical.
2. Industrial R&D specialist: the industrial scientist works in a office or a warehouse, with a team of other specialists, under the supervision of a project manager. He/she develops practical products, which have to be sellable and they have to be developed fast.
- More constrained (deadlines): the usual industrial project takes several months, under strict supervision and have to satisfy the needs of the marketing department. The deadlines are an issue here.
- Produces a practical product: the product have a practical, well defined application, shape, quality requirements and price.
- Pays a lot more: the salaries of the industrial R&D have an additional zero at the end.
- No funding issues: the industrial projects have more than adequate budget and they can receive an additional funding, if needed.
- No ego issues – “it’s just a job” - for the industrial specialist, the work is just a meaning for living. A job, as good as any other job. No "special missions" here.
- Literally “saves the world”: the products of the industry are used as practical applications and are used for diagnostics and treatment on everyday basis.
Professional levels: As any other profession, the medical 3D artist goes through several stages, each one with higher requirements and possibilities.
- Jobber: the lowest level of them all. A sporadic odd jobs, for a low salary, for whoever is willing to pay. This is the first level, which a wannabe medical 3d artist reach and the level, on which most of them stay. Only those, who can achieve the necessary discipline, business ethics and quality can reach the next level. The jobbers are unpredictable, chaotic, they can hardly satisfy the deadlines and they offer the lowest quality possible. Every medical 3D artist in training is also a jobber.
- Freelancer: the selective few, who are talented and discipline enough to be able to offer NDA, contract, quote statement, production method description and industrial quality control. Those are the medical 3D artists, who doesn't suck, but wants to be free and flexible enough to follow their other interests. The freelancer is hired from companies and institution, which can't support a full-job 3d artist or their specialist are not competent enough to make the job done. A proud, well-respected person, working under strict business ethics, for fixed pay rate, usually calculated per hour or per item. The freelancer works on small projects, for a limited period of time and under well-defined condition, written on an official contract. Every professional medical 3D artist is also a freelancers. The reputation have a big importance in this group, which is why the freelancers are considered predictable, disciplined and competent to do any task, thrown at them. The salary here depends on the negotiating skills of the freelancer.
- Contractor: Those freelancers, who have the necessary business talent and are willing to take some risks, can make a company with several employees, several 3d printers, a convenient website with good portfolio and a variety of services. Such a company can take bigger orders from large institutions (hospitals or industrial companies), which requires a higher level of expertise, speed of service and quality control. Those contracts are for a longer period of time, under fixed condition, pricing and quality of the service.
- CEO: Those are the contractors, who are able to survive and to thrive, eventually can become big corporations, with hundreds of employees and millions dollars budgets. All of the current corporations started as small companies. Believe it or not, the biggest 3d printing companies (3D Systems, Stratasys. Ultimaker and many more) started as small, family-oriented companies, which became the gigantic corporations they are today. How they made it? I really want to know the answer of this question.
So, most likely, you're a talented young (or not-so-young) individual with medical background, who watched some tutorials, made several models (most likely bones) and 3d printed them with a cheap 3d printer. Confident with your results, you think you can make a living with this amazing job and you're wondering how to start.
My start was a bit rough, because I was trying to make a model of Pyramidal neuron in the Telencephalon for my department from a 10Gb Z-stack in Tif format with zero knowledge how to do it. This is how I found this website in first place. Few days later the model was done and when I tried to make my first bone models, it was way too easy, compared to the neuron. The rest is a lot of trails and errors, a lot of youtube tutorials, several kilograms of textbooks and the support of my colleagues. Here are some tips what you need to do in order to become a freelancer:
- Portfolio: If you want to sell your work, you have to present it first. Sketchfab.com is a very good way to do it, because it have an amazing 3d viewer with various awesome animation options. If you want to present your work, you just have to paste the link, because it's a zero-footrpint system - all you need to use it is a web browser. It's an excellent choice for 3d visualization and it's also free. The more models you're adding, the bigger audience you'll have and you don't have to worry what kind of 3d viewer your potential clients are using.
- Downloadable models: My personal choice is 30% paid models and 70% free ones. I'm a PhD student, I don't have some immediate need of money, so I can afford that. I'm dividing my models into regular and premium ones. In this way my models can be useful for everyone, both business parties or poor students around the world. It's really hard to find a good medical model for a presentation or a small university project and if you manage to find one, it's most likely from this website.
- Quote: When you're starting a job for someone, make sure that you have an accurate quote for your task in written format. Something like that: "I will generate ??? 3D models of a ??? (system, organ, structure) from CT/MRI datasets, which will include the following structures (soft tissues, bones, arterial/venous vessels etc. etc.) in ??? days for a ??? USD per hour, ??? hours per model, ??? USD per model". The more accurate you are, the better. This gives you the framework, in which you're working. Everything outside this frameworks is an extra and it should be payed as well. Your clients will try to change the conditions of your quote, this is why you need something written to control this process. Make sure you specify the currency, $ can mean a US dollar or a Mexican peso!
- NDA: Some clients will requite a mutual non-disclosure agreement, which you have to print, sign, scan and send back to the client. If you don't have such a document signed, you can do whatever you want with the model and you don't have to explain yourself to your client. You can afford a lower price for a model without NDA, because you can sell it or upload it as free download anyway. If you have such a document, just forget about the model, don't share it, don't show it and don't print it - you don't want to be sued by a medical company, they are more powerful than you.
- Contract: You should have a standard freelancers contract, in which you should apply the quote statement. Most of the cases, the quote statement is enough.
- Production method: You have to specify your production parameters like software, methods and operations. Something like that: "Segmentation of the abdominal aorta with Slicer 3D, exporting of the model as stl file, modelling and sculpting (smoothing, remeshing, boolean operation etc etc) in Meshmixer, postprocessing (slicing, magnet sockets, hinges etc etc) in Fusion 360, importation of the model into Slicer 3D for subsequent quality control, including ??? measurements of the dataset, the model and generation of average deviation". Don't be too precise, just the basic operations you're using with the corresponding software. Make sure you're not using a cracked software in your production method, everything you're using should be owned by you!
3D printed models: It's a good idea to have a set of 3d printed models, which can be presented on conferences, exhibitions and your social media page. This is a good commercial for your work, which is also a way for popularisation of the medical 3D modelling.
- Deadlines: Be precise in your work and follow the deadlines! As an old proctologist from my med school used to say - it's better to mess your finger than your reputation. If you're good in your work, you'll be hired again.
- Invoice: As with the contract, you should have a standard freelancers invoice, which you should send to your client. All those documents increases your credibility and are considered as signs of professionalism. If you're keeping your professional level high, you'll have better clients and higher pay rate.
- Freelancers websites: It's a good idea to have profiles in several freelancers websites. Most of your clients will contact you in person, but most likely they'll find you on those websites. Linkedin is a must. Patreon and facebook are also a good bet.
- Pricing: The usual salary for 3d modelling is between 30 and 60$ per hour, depending on the complexity of the task and the presence of an NDA. The most useful pricing for 3d printing is 1,5-2$ per hour of 3d printing. The smaller slide thickness and the bigger models requires significantly more time and a bigger price. You should also include all the postprocessing you're using (sanding, airbrushing, magnets, varnishes etc etc).
- 3D printing: For small operations, two or three 3d printers are enough. Good budget options are Ender 3 (FDM) and Elegoo Mars (DLP). Prusa MK3 and Form 2 are better, more expensive options, which will make your life much easier. Keep your printers in good condition and provide a regular maintenance. Choose several brands of polymers and stick to them, you don't want surprises, why you're chasing a deadline.
- Have fun: It doesn't matter what you're doing and how much you're making by doing it. Just have some fun! 3D printing is amazing, highly contagious activity, but it can become a burden, if you're not enjoying it. And always remember - with your work you're developing the medical science and you're literally saving lives.