The capabilities of 3-D printers are just starting to take off, making almost anything you can imagine or draw on a computer, including things like Steven Colbert’s head. But funny business aside, these printers also emerging as useful tool in medical settings as well due to their ability to make very specific, customized items.

The latest out of Washington State University is a bone — hot off the presses. Although not exactly like a bone, given the fact that it will dissolve eventually and that’s by design, the bone-like material is what researchers hope will act as “scaffolding” that when paired with actual bone will help facilitate growth.

Watch Susmita Bose, a professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, explain the research and see the printer begin to work:

The researchers see the bone-like material being used in orthopedic procedures, dental work and to deliver medicine for treating osteoporosis, according to the press release. Paired with actual bone, it acts as a scaffold for new bone to grow on and ultimately dissolves with no apparent ill effects. Thus far, they have had success with the bone scaffolding on rats and rabbits.

The ProMetal 3D printer used by the researchers, which is designed to make metal objects, works by having an inkjet spray a plastic binder over a bed of powder in layers of 20 microns, about half the width of a human hair, the press release reports. Following a computer’s directions, it creates a channeled cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. The research found that the addition of silicon and zinc more than doubled the strength of the main material, calcium phosphate.

3-D printer makes bone-like material

This 3-D printer makes bone-like material. (Photo: Washington State University)

They have found that within a week in a medium with immature human bone cells, the scaffold was supporting a network of new bone cells.