How Medical 3D Printing is Transforming the Health Care Industry

3D printing has come a long way in the past few years. Right now, the best things to print on a 3D printer are small, customized and expensive, which makes medicine a prime sector for 3D printing. It is therefore not surprising that a 2013 Morgan Stanley blue paper on medical technology (the technically oriented version of a white paper) found that nearly 40 percent of patent applications were in 3D medical printing.

Ultrasound magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) data has increasingly been used by doctors to make medical models that assist in the planning and practice of surgery. For example, a Japanese company has developed a process called bio texture modeling. This uses material jetting to make 3D prints that simulate the wetness and texture of human organs, making body parts actually feel organic to the touch. These 3D printed parts allow a surgeon to see scar tissue and cancers inside an organ. They can be dissected to practice an operation before cutting into a patient.

Flesh 3D printed medical models can also assist in the fabrication of custom prosthetics. For example, partial facial flexible masks that include teeth have been printed to allow patients who have lost part of their face to eat and drink in a normal fashion.

An increasing number of people wear external prosthesis manufactured in whole or part by 3D printers. Prosthetic legs with 3D printed fairings, 3D printed foot shells and customized artificial limb components are some of the ways 3D printing is improving the lives of patients.

Bone replacement parts can be printed out of calcium carbonate, which is a bony-like material. Calcium carbonate can be mixed with different materials, making it softer like your lower body bones or harder like your upper body bones.

3-D printers are useful for modeling. For example, computed tomography (CT) scan data can be used as a pattern for 3-D printing. Hospitals will soon be able to upload CT scan data into a simulator and print out a simulated body part that can be used for practice by a surgeon or intern before surgery. This technology is currently being applied to angiography. Surgeons and cardiologists are using the simulated body part to practice a procedure given the particular body parts of an individual.

Electron beam melting is being used to produce medical implants, such as artificial hips that attach to a patient’s pelvis. These custom 3D hips are printed in titanium and have a unique porous surface structure that cannot be fabricated using traditional manufacturing methods. The unique surface provides the best long-term solution as the patient’s bone actually grows into it. Other bones that have been repaired or replaced with customized metal 3D prints including a titanium replacement jaw.

Entering the mainstream, 3D printing is rapidly facilitating digital dentistry. For example, a range of 3D printers has been developed that can create wax stocks using wax deposition modeling technology, as well as orthodontic appliances and surgical guides. Using its polar jet materials and jetting process, 3D printers produce very high resolution smooth surface prints that can be matched to make realistic veneer models. Other dental 3D printing pioneers include 3D systems that assist in the production of aligners, drill guides, bridges, crowns and temporary teeth.

Another medical sector being transformed by 3D printing is the manufacture of personalized hearing aid casings. The hardware of each of these casings will perfectly fit inside the patient’s ear. According to the Harvard Business Review, it took less than 500 days for all companies that produces custom hearing aid shells to switch from traditional methods to 3D printing.

In the future bio printing will facilitate the 3D print out of organic tissues, such as bio-ink spheroids each containing tens of thousands of living cells. They will be 3D printed in two layers of a protective material. After they are printed out they will rearrange into functional tissue for human transplantation. Already, early pioneers have bio printed sections of muscle, human arteries, human skin and nerve grafts. Medial 3D printing has advanced significantly in recent years with a market that is predicted to be worth nearly $1 billion by 2019.

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