3D printing in medical devices is growing exponentially

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The progress and growth of 3D printing applications within the medical sector has been, and continues to be, exponential. It is truly inspirational to witness the advancements being made. Medical applications of 3D printing are amongst the most talked about and written about of all the current and potential applications of the technology.

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Photo credit: Andrew Huff via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

My personal view on why this might be is because it is essentially the most fundamental application of ANY technology, in that it is being used to save, extend and/or change lives for the better. I also believe that while it is very easy to say these things — and write about them ubiquitously —what is actually being achieved, each and every time the technology is applied in this way matters tremendously.

So while 3D printing is concurrently changing aero and auto manufacturing workflows and practices, while it brings us customised and even personalised new merchandise of varying value and supports numerous other vertical markets in the pursuit of efficiency and cost-effectiveness — none of these come close to the intrinsic value of improving and/or saving human lives.

As the individual stories of medical 3D printing applications continue to emerge, they also inspire, galvanise, and excite. However whenever I stop and think about the “medical” applications in their entirety it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the field.

Consider just a few examples:

  • external medical devices in all their forms to non-biological implants
  • drugs and the range of delivery mechanisms for those different pharmaceutical in all their possible physical states
  • breakthrough research in vivo applications that involve bioprinting living cells and organs

The breadth and depth of the work being carried out is mind blowing.

Industry scope is huge

Even considering the medical device sector alone, the scope of this sub-sector of the medical industry is immense. I know this to be true because the first title I ever worked on as a junior editor was “Medical Device Technology.” Back then, I hadn’t even heard of 3D printing, although a few of the big MD companies were just starting to get to grips with “Rapid Prototyping” within their product development processes.

Today the concept development value of 3D printing and functional testing capabilities for more complex devices is virtually a given, a trend that is reflected across all advanced industrial sectors. But the advancements in 3D software capabilities, in parallel with more sophisticated material developments and the hardware improvements, have paved new ground for personalised medical devices that are 3D printed specifically to improve outcomes for individual patients.

Kidney

Dr. Jean-Christophe Bernhard at the Department of Urology and Kidney Transplantation at the University Hospital (CHU) de Bordeaux in France holds a model of a patient's kidney. The model was printed on a Stratasys Objet500 Connex3.

Patient-specific models

Beyond the prototyping applications in the medical field, the two most prevalent applications of 3D printing today are clearly the production of patient-specific medical models in preparation for surgery and the production of patient-specific surgical guides utilised during surgery.

Both of these applications capitalise on the two unique selling points of 3D printing tech:

  • personalisation that enables the “patient-specific” angle from captured 3D digital data via today’s sophisticated CT scanning techniques
  • the ability to (relatively) easily produce very complex shapes accurately in one build

There are many examples of these combined techniques being used for planning and preparing ahead of tumour removal surgeries all around the world. With a glass half empty perspective, it can be depressing thinking about the pervasive nature of cancer and how it blights so many lives — which is why each and every time 3D printing contributes to a successful outcome, it should be be reported, and celebrated.

Guides

Similarly, with personalised surgical guides, the difference they make to each patient is of paramount importance — reducing time under anaesthetic, reducing recovery times and pain and optimising overall outcomes. The application of 3D printing to personalised surgical guides is more demanding than the medical models however, due to them being in contact with the inside of the body. The materials used to 3D print the guides have to be fully compliant with the regulatory bodies determining patient safety – it has been developments in this area that have significantly contributed to the growth and expansion of this type of application.

There are a number of stand-out 3D printing companies that have worked tirelessly in partnership with healthcare professionals to develop these applications across the 3D printing ecosystem of software, 3D printing platform and materials — among them Materialise (Belgium), a company that has probably pursued and driven medical applications more than any other; Stratasys (Israel & the US) who just this week announced a new partnership with the Jacobs Institute to form a new Centre of Excellence to accelerate the development of new medical technologies; Envisiontec (Germany); and 3D Systems (US), which acquired Medical Modelling and Layerwise to this end also.

However, beyond the vendor companies, it is fascinating to see how 3D printers are being placed directly into hospitals (rather than via 3rd parties) to facilitate these applications more regularly at the point of need. Last year I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Muhanad Hatamleh from King's College Hospital, a surgical consultant that was also utilising his own 3D printer.

The 3D printing processes that are most suited to these applications are the ones that demonstrate the greatest accuracy and precision in production. Thus stereolithography, PolyJet, and DLP dominate here. The latest machine platform from Stratasys based on the PolyJet process — the J750 — positively shines in this area with its advanced multi-material, multi-colour capabilities within a single build.

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Helping hands

One other medical device application that absolutely deserves a mention here is prosthetics. While not typically something one would associate with “consumer 3D printing” the proliferation of low-cost prosthetic hands has actually been a driver for desktop 3D printers and were perhaps the surprise application of the last couple of years.

MakerBot was instrumental at the beginning of this phenomenon — they picked up on the plight of Liam back at the start of 2013 and the efforts of two men, on different sides of the world, that were working on an initiative to help him, dubbed Robohand. In the following 3+ years, the phenomenon of low-cost “3D printed hands” has been prolific and instrumental in bringing joy and delight to hundreds, if not thousands, of kids. The smiles from recipients all across the world are all the proof you should need that 3D printing can make a difference in the best way possible.

Of course there are also many industrial enterprises working in this area too. Take the CYBER team, a partnership between The University of Michigan, Altair Engineering, and Stratasys. The CYBER Team was recently selected and funded by America Makes (the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) to work together on a solution that will leverage 3D printing and Industry 4.0 to transform the design, comfort, utility and customization of Ankle Foot Orthotics (AFO).

There are some incredible one-off examples of exoskeletons from 3D printing vendor companies, but perhaps the standout organisation here is Open Bionics and the work of Joel Gibbard who is using 3D printing technologies to develop personalised, affordable, bionic hands.

To be continued

So while I fully intended to go on and exploring the even more invasive medical applications of 3D printing here in this post, it seems I am out of space. Thus in my next post I will continue this theme, and consider the impact of 3D printing on medical implants, as well as the relatively new field of 3D printed pharmaceuticals and research into 3D bioprinting of live tissues.

It’s a whole new world that lies ahead of us.


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