3D printing has developed into the medical field in a fantastic way, and has really aided the lives of many people across the world. I looked into the several applications of 3D printing for medical benefits and put them together in this article.
So what are 3D printers used for in the medical field? There is a surprisingly wide range of uses: personalised prosthetics, 3D modelling for surgical planning and education, dental treatments, skin and cell regeneration, organic tissue production, surgical equipment production, medication dosage and pharmacology, hearing aids.
This is a simple list of the applications of 3D printers in medicine. Due to the technological developments in 3D printing, it has been adopted at an increasing rate in the medical field. Being more accessible to people and organisations, it has been applied in many different ways. I will explain these in more detail so keep reading.
What’s So Good About 3D Printing in Medicine?
The ability of 3D printing to revolutionise the medical field is taking many industries by surprise. The application of the technology has several advantages to save and enhance patients’ lives.
According to Wohlers – an industry-leading group on 3D printing, 13% of all 3D printing revenue came from companies linked to the medical field. We also have IDC forecasts of a 19.5% annual growth from 2019-2022, which I imagine will increase even more.
The top three uses of 3D printing in terms of revenue is prototypes, after-market parts and architectural designs. In 2022, it’s expected that dental and medical support objects will take third place.
There are very impressive, inspiring examples of these uses and massive potential for the future.
3D printing applications in medicine have an amazing ability to produce medical objects at such lower costs, as well as having the ability to customise things specifically to each patient. A few of the major applications of 3D printing in the medical field are replacing human organ transplants, speeding up surgical procedures, manufacturing cost-efficient surgical tools, and developing improved prosthetics.
Many advancements are happening in Western Europe, however we are seeing increased levels of growth in Central and Eastern Europe. These lower income areas don’t have the best access to essential surgical equipment, so there is huge growth potential for 3D printers and it’s growth in the medical field. The initial costs of a high quality 3D printer may be up there, but after printing a number of useful tools it will pay for itself.
3D printing has the great benefit of being able to customise and make objects personalised to an individual. People can choose from different designs, sizes, colours and so on at their disposal.
The manufacturing process of 3D printing is much easier than the traditional methods. It substantially reduces costs and waiting times for things to be manufactured.
Being able to personalise the model and preparing the teams is a very essential application of 3D printing in the medical field which has a massive positive impact.
Surgical Planning Using 3D Replicas
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Especially in the medical field, and there are in some complex cases, a very small margin for error.
Being able to visualise complex pathologies and abnormalities in 2D medical on-screen imaging can prove very difficult in the context of an operation. This is where 3D printing comes in. We can now use 3D printing to create anatomical replicas from exact patient scans. This is done using the 2D imaging dimensions such as X-rays and MRI’s, then inputting them into specialised design software to be able to 3D print it.
Being able to have a detailed replica of a surgical part allows for a true understanding of what a surgeon will be doing. There are many cases where surgeons will actually use this replicas to make a decision on what type of surgery to perform and what procedure to do next. It’s especially useful in collaborative cases where several physicians may consult with each other to come to a solution.
This should increase the confidence and lower possible mistakes in surgery. This can r
eally be the difference between a surgery going good to the opposite.
Surgeons even have the ability to 3D print the hearts of unborn babies, to be ready for surgery when they are born. They can attach tubes to these heart replicas to see how surgery techniques affect blood flow.
Tim Brown, a surgical consultant at Belfast City Hospital said “it’s difficult to underestimate how valuable this strategy was in terms of preoperative planning and achieving successful clearance of the lesion.” in response to a complex surgery involving a cyst in a difficult to see area on a patients kidney.
At the Washington University Medical Campus, there is a designated Medical 3D Printing Center to assist referring physicians. It’s goal is to provide them with pre-surgical planning materials, especially in complex cases.
A few vital operations which make use of these replicas are heart and organ transplants, repairing of fractures and breaks, spinal restoration and many more. In a 3D model of a heart, you are able to see important structures such as the veins and arteries, so you have a similar perspective to what you would in the operating room.
Pre-planning operations in this way is very useful to a medical team. On top of this, these models can be used for consultation to the actual patient or guardians to communicate what procedures will be applied g
oing forward. The surgeon can use the 3D model to explain the procedure to the patient or guardians so they know what to expect and understand the length of the surgery. Any potential complications, how the outcomes will occur and what types of things can affect the outcomes.
These increased levels of communication between the patient and physician has seen increased levels of positive consent and feedback.
Surgery times have been described to have been reduced due to using these anatomical models.
As a direct result of this, patients report lower levels of trauma after surgery. It doesn’t matter how complex the surgery, this method has great examples of increasing success.
Educational Purposes of 3D Printing In Medicine
These anatomical models don’t only help trained physicians but also future physicians in training. These anatomical models have a great place for educational purposes, so for the visual learners out there, they can really grasp what they will be faced with such as abnormalities, tumours and so on.
The presence of 3D printed models can allow newer physicians to accurately simulate a surgical procedure, giving extra confidence and technical ability.
Many organisations boast of an increased success rate of operations due to this, as well as the saved time and cost benefits.
Gartner conducted a study which found that by 2021, 25% of surgeons will test their skills on 3D printed models of patients before going into an operation. In the same study, nearly 3% of large hospitals and medical research institutions have direct 3D printer access.
Being able to simulate operations on 3D printed organs rather than animal organs, gives doctors more accurate training. This leads to an increase in the skills and confidence of future doctors.
Low-Cost Surgical & Medical Equipment Production
When it comes to surgical instruments, some of these can be quite complex and precise, which is perfect for 3D printers. Being able to operate on small areas is essential for many surgeries, so tools can easily be scaled on a 3D printer.
3D printing medical objects not only saves in production cost, but also in transportation costs. This is especially true in hard to access, low-income areas due to road infrastructure. It is a lot easier to transport the equipment needed to 3D print it rather than regularly transporting the desired tools.
Examples of these tools are forceps, clamps, hemostats and scalpel handles.
The benefits of 3D printing surgical tools is the low production costs, as well as the ease of access to produce these parts in a customised fashion.
3D printed surgical tools and medical devices have great applications due to it’s low cost and ability to customise. They are printed in a sterile condition and allows quick replacements when needed.
An example of the cost difference of 3D printed surgical tools is the Army-Navy surgical retractor. This can be made from PLA in just over an hour at the cost of 10% of the stainless steel equivalent.
Bio-Printing – Skin, Cells & Organic Tissue
A revolutionary use of 3D printing is the process of bio-printing. This is using a 3D printer to layer living cells to create artificial living tissues. These actually can replicate organs on a smaller scale and may have application in organ transplants. Most people know about stem cells and their brilliant ability to reproduce into specialised human tissue. We can bio-print stem cells and this is what led us to printing out other types of tissues.
Being able to 3D print organic tissue sounds like the impossi
ble, but through serious development it is a method used frequently. Using a patients own cells we can recreate customised organs and tissue cells.
This application is huge considering it can repair and reconstruct skin tissue, be used to perform a kidney or heart transplants, and limb replacement. On top of this, the repair of bone and muscles can be achieved.
We are yet to 3D print entire organs for a practical use for patients, but we have achieved plenty. We can successfully print kidney cells, cardiac tissue, and the base of a human liver along with many other organic tissue. With the speed of improvements in this field, we are definitely on the path towards some serious breakthroughs.
Being able to 3D print skin would change the scope of treatment for many patients, such as burn victims, skin cancer patients and many other ailments which affect skin. There is much development of ski
n cell bioprinting and once at a reliable level, will definitely be adopted in this field.
There are developments into 3D printing heart cells, which have had successful tests done on rats already. We can actually generate artificial cardiac tissue to mimic the functions of a human heart.
Medical Treatments of Diseases Using 3D Printing
Cancer research is a massive area where disease cells and cancer cells can be bio-printed, to allow closer study of how tumours develop. Further developments in this could really see breakthroughs in treatment of cancer. Doctors will actually be able to directly take cancerous cells, 3D print them, then test various treatments to see what works best with this specific case.
This is a definite upgrade compared to testing on the 2
D form of cells which is using a petri-dish then doing the same type of testing. It’s a much more realistic representation of patients.
Bone & Cartilage Treatment Using 3D Printing
Bone and cartilage is another application of 3D printing which is being looked at. Engineers have been able to print prototypes of certain human parts such as a meniscus, which is the inner knee. Such a part would need to be extremely durable due to how much pressure and force is applied on this area, but it is an amazing start. Spinal restoration has been gaining traction using this method after successful testing on rats. Physicians would build scaffolding to im
plant stem cells, so new spinal cord tissue can then regrow and actually restore function.
Researchers are confident that with more technological development in the capabilities of 3D printers, we will be able to perform these procedures on humans.
3D Printing Customised Prosthetics
3D printing and it’s ability for customisation makes it a great fit to produce prosthetics for patients, to a tailored standard.
Since these prosthetics are easily adaptable and produced, it is ideal for children who outgrow their prosthetics at a relatively fast rate.
When it comes to prosthetic limbs, traditional processes are known to be expensive as well as uncomfortable due to the lack of personal customisation in terms of fit.
It seems like there will be a point in time where companies who don’t convert to 3D printing technology in the prosthetic field may be taken out of the market due to price differences and vast advancement in the development of the technology.
The process of being fitted for a prosthesis will usually take several visits to a doctor, so they can create a device that fits your needs. This includes follow-up visits for adjustments as comfort and alignment is very important. With 3D printing, this process is cut down significantly. We can now simply 3D scan patients, and have that imaging transferred to design software to 3D print prosthetics.
Being able to create a unique prosthesis will reduce the time it takes to do these fittings and future adjustments, as well as making your fitting more comfortable.
Prosthetics only last from several months to years, so being able to produce these at a high speed and low cost, with great customisation is massive in this industry. Prosthetics can cost between $1,000 to $9,000, while a 3D printed one can cost as little as $40.
Not only are the products cheaper to produce, but they are done much more timely and with the same functionality as your traditionally produced prosthetic.
Dental Treatment Application of 3D Printing
Following along with the theme of customisation, the application also stretches to the dentistry field. We can produce reliable dental appliances such as dental bridges, dentures, crowns and braces specific to each patient.
There are obvious cost savings using the 3D printing method, as well as massive time savings, as some of these dental appliances can take months to get to patients. Once a dental clinic has adopted 3D printing, it will really benefit from a competitive advantage in patient care and satisfaction. Many have already started using 3D printers and have seen real results because of it.
Jaw reconstruction is an application which has aided the lives of many people. A 3D printed dental bridge using durable materials such as titanium and ceramic allowed new teeth to be implanted in a woman in the Netherlands. This is a less invasive procedure and has a much lower rate of complications than traditional dental treatments in this case.
Medication Dosage & Pharmacology
Development of 3D printing in medicine has allowed dosage control, where multiple drugs are put into one pill with different release times. This allows patients who take multiple drugs to have a customised pill that takes away the need of pill schedules.
This will reduce the risk of double dosage, where it might be forgotten that a patient has taken a dose of a drug. It’s called the ‘polypill’ and has great benefits for patients who dislike taking multiple pills throughout treatment.
Again, this has the benefit of lower costs and once adopted, can save a lot of time and money in the long-run.
Hearing Aid Industry Applications
The hearing aid industry is a very exciting example of the application of 3D printing in the medical field. In 2015, the US market for hearing aids had a 100% conversion to 3D printing in less than 2 years. The companies that kept their conventional manufacturing methods did not last. This just shows the real impact that 3D printing has on various markets.
The ability to customise the shape, colour and even material easily using 3D printing, is a massive step in the right direction. These also come at a much lower cost and can be produced in the clinic.