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How 3D Printing is Changing the Medical Industry

By October 12, 2016 No Comments

Imagine this: you’re a doctor. You have a patient who requires surgery.

That’s not anything unusual, but where the surgery needs to happen is. So, using ultrasound, radiography, and any other imaging technology available to you, you create a physical, actual-size model to show the surgery team exactly what is going on within the patient. And you have it in hand within a few hours.

Sound like something from science fiction? It’s not. It’s happening right now. All because of 3D printing.

Why Medical Professionals Are Choosing 3D Printing

Marco Avaro, an engineer at medical technology company WASP Medical, says 3D printing for medical purposes “has become extremely accurate and sophisticated,” allowing his company to create better devices for their customers.

But there are many other reasons why healthcare professionals are looking to 3D printing to solve problems for their patients.

3D Printing Reduces Costs

It may be difficult to get medical professionals to agree on anything, but this is one: 3D printing produces medical technology that is much cheaper than what is traditionally available. Users create patient-specific objects at a fraction of what those customizations would cost using other manufacturing methods.

Designs Are More Flexible

There are many different machines and materials available to choose from when designing your product. Very few companies producing 3D printed items own printers only capable of printing in one material and size.

Devices once considered too complex for traditional manufacturing or modeling methods are possible with 3D printing – provided the lines of the design aren’t too thin to be durable.

The additive nature of 3D printing also means it’s simple to tweak designs – you just make adjustments in the 3D file. You don’t have to develop a completely new file. You don’t have to switch out parts on the machine.

The Process is Quicker

Researchers and doctors get their hands on items sooner than what could be created before. This is why non-profit Nia Technologies chose to use 3D printed prosthetics over plaster cast models.

Medical Devices Created with 3D Printing

There are certainly plenty of feel-good stories out there sharing how 3D printing enabled someone to walk again or get a prosthetic when everything else failed. But there are so many other ways the medical industry is using 3D printing:

  • Prosthetics
  • Orthotics
  • Braces
  • Bone implants
  • Models used for education and planning surgeries
  • Dentures and other dental devices
  • Drugs

You can also 3D print prototypes and sales aids for the devices you produce. How’s that for flexibility?

Materials Used

Not just any material is used for 3D printing medical devices. Materials undergo testing and receive certification. The industry has seen success with:

  • Silicone
  • Carbon fiber
  • Plastics
  • Metals

Problems 3D Printing Faces in the Medical Industry

Though 3D printing has been used in medical applications for decades, adoption of new technology has at times been slow. Much of this is due to regulatory agencies’ testing and certification requirements.

Mostly these strict requirements are in place because agencies aren’t familiar with 3D printing. As it becomes more mainstream, these requirements will become easier to navigate. You can find information on guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration here.

Future of 3D Printing in Healthcare

There are some exciting technologies being developed (such as two very different bone implants: hyperelastic bone and 3D printed bone). We think 3D printing will become the go-to process for more than just prosthetics.