Healthcare Technology Featured Article

April 26, 2013

Top 4 Uses of 3D Printing in Healthcare

It might sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, but 3D printing is very real - and set to revolutionize the medical industry. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process of using a digital model to create 3-D objects with layers of various materials, including metals and polymers. With this technology, virtually anything that can be made in a computer model can be “printed,” assuming you have the correct materials on hand.

Of course, 3D printing’s capabilities are not limitless, at least not yet; the technology is still in its early stages and the true extent of its power remains to be seen. Different industries, including the aviation and automotive sectors, have adopted 3D printing techniques in their manufacturing processes. It’s the healthcare field, however, that holds some of the most exciting potential uses for 3D printing. Here are some of the ways this emerging technology is already saving lives and improving the quality of life for countless patients—and how it will do so in years to come.

1. Prosthetics

 Prosthetics have come a long way since the days of peg legs, but until now, finding ways to manufacture products specific to every unique body in a cost effective way has been a challenge. This is where 3D printing comes in. Using a computer model, prosthetics can be designed with extremely precise measurements, and then manufactured on a one-time basis. Because they fit so well, these highly customized prosthetics have the potential to be much more comfortable and effective than models used in the past. The proliferation of relatively inexpensive 3D printers has also allowed for enthusiasts to experiment on their own. A teenager recently created a robotic arm using 3D printing technology in his own home for an impressively low $900. As 3D printing evolves, examples such as these will only become more commonplace. 

Overseas, in remote war-torn areas, 3D printing offers a portable, immediate way to create customized prosthetics for people who need them. The United States Army has already deployed at least two mobile labs featuring 3D printing technology, which can be transported by truck or helicopter to any location, to the warzone Afghanistan. In coming years, we’ll see this technology become even more transportable, cost-effective, and sophisticated—and more people will gain access to affordable and comfortable prosthetics.

2. Dentistry

 Dentists, dental assistants and hygienists or anyone else working in the dental field already know how 3D technology has already made a big impact on dentistry. Just as prosthetic limbs must be customized to fit specific bodies, dental implants must also be tailored to individual mouths for maximum comfort. In a process known as what is dental fabrication, a digitized, intra-oral scan is made of a patient’s teeth, which is then sent to a lab. The lab then prints out a model based on the scan and the product is created—without the patient having to endure the hassle of uncomfortable, less accurate molds. The process is more efficient than traditional models, taking between 20-30 minutes per creation rather than 3-4 hours. It’s also more cost-effective, meaning 3D-printed dental implants are not just higher quality, but cheaper, too.

3. Organs

Though by some estimates we’re still at least 20 years from seeing 3D-printed organs available to the public, research breakthroughs in pursuit of this goal are increasing in frequency. Researchers recently announced that they built a 3D printer that can create a substance resembling human tissue, consisting of droplets of water separate by lipid bilayers. Scientists believe that if protein channels can be inserted into the layers, they can act as nerve pathways throughout the body. This substance can be triggered into contracting like a muscle, and was found to be capable of sending electrical signals, similar to how a nerve would behave.

While implementation of this synthetic tissue still in its earliest stages, it marks a significant breakthrough in the pursuit of manufacturing customized synthetic organs. Of course, the ability to print human organs has the potential to save countless lives. No longer will those in need of new organs languish on donor waitlists; they’ll simply be able to order up a new kidney, liver, or heart when they need one. For many, this technology can’t come soon enough.

4. Implants

Medical implants have a wide range of uses, from hip replacements to knee implants. Just as 3D printing can make easily customizable prosthetics, it can be used to produce specialized implants as well. In fact, a man recently received a 3D-printed bone implant that replaced 75 percent of his skull. Previously, an elderly woman received a titanium jaw implant that had been created using a 3D printer. The company that created the skull implant plans to expand to other parts of the body, manufacturing individualized femurs, kneecaps, and hips. As 3D printing technology progresses, people who need these implants will have more cost-effective and comfortable options to improve their quality of life.

 3D printing is just one of the advancements in medical technology set to improve the health care field in coming years. Between 3D printing, digitized medical records for improvements in medical billing and coding, and advancements in medical research, we have a lot to look forward to in our medical future.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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