The 3D Printing Process
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is an emerging technology that allows for the making of three-dimensional solid objects from computer-designed blueprints. Objects can be almost any shape or geometry and are produced from digital model data or other electronic data source such as an Additive Manufacturing File (AMF) file.
The process begins with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. The design, in the form of a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, is created using a 3D modeling application or 3D scanner. An additive process technique – during which successive layers of material are formed under computer control – is used to create the object,. Each of these layers can be viewed as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.
Guns, statues and toys have all been made using 3D printing, but the most promising application appears to lie in the healthcare industry, where it is being used for a wide variety of beneficial purposes.
Benefits of 3D Printing in Healthcare
Due to recent advancements in 3D printing, the healthcare industry has been putting a great deal of time and effort into successfully utilizing this game-changing technology. Medical professionals across the globe are increasingly exploring 3D printing as they realize it cuts costs and improves the quality of patient care.
The scope of applying 3D printing technology within the medical industry is broad. In fact, according to a recent report by Visiongain, the 3D printing market for healthcare will generate more than $4 billion by 2018.
3D printers are increasingly being used to create a wide range of plastic medical devices. A few years ago, a 3D printed device was used to save the life of an infant suffering from a condition that caused his airways to close and caused his face to turn blue. Using 3D printing, doctors at the University of Michigan created a customized splint that opened his airways and saved his life.
One of the biggest hurdles for improving medical care in low-income areas is access to surgical equipment. The industry standard for years has been stainless steel surgical tools, which are expensive to produce and sterilize for reuse in developing countries. More and more healthcare professionals are recognizing the use of 3D-printed plastic tools as a cost-efficient and safe medical alternative.
The most profound medical advancements resulting from 3D printing can be found in the surgical arena. For example, 3D printing is changing pre-surgical planning, as doctors can now use images derived from CT scans and MRIs to recreate lifelike models of organs. By doing this, they can make better observations and prepare for more effective procedures long before commencing surgery. Surgeons in Japan have created 3D replicas of cancerous kidneys for use in pre-surgery preparation, and American doctors have used 3D-printed ribcages to help prepare for the treatment of birth defects in newborn babies.
In a recent Modern Healthcare article, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, a plastic surgeon at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and a pioneer in facial transplants, described using 3D printing to plan his surgeries. “The overall direction [in personalized surgery] is to make complex operations simpler,” he said. “This may be one of the most profound tools that we hope to use in the coming future.”
In addition to pre-surgical planning, 3D printing is having a positive impact on the use of surgical implants. Customized orthopedic implants created through 3D printing, for example, tend to reduce surgery times and perform much better. The use of 3D-printed medical implants also reduces the risks associated with anesthesia during long surgeries.
3D printers are being used to provide prosthetics at a much lower cost than previously possible. Prosthetics for certain parts of the body, such as the hands, are subject to a great deal of wear and tear, making the cost of producing them prohibitive. For young children who outgrow their prosthetics in just a few months, traditional methods of producing replacement limbs are not practical. 3D printers, however, can be used to produce customizable prosthetic hands for a few hundred dollars, making them accessible to a much larger segment of the population.
Future Benefits – Human Organ Replication
Research is currently being conducted into the possibility of 3D printers being able to replicate complex human organs for transplants. Currently, the most advanced research surrounding internal organs has only been able to produce partial tissue samples suitable for testing. Although human organs are highly complicated and detailed architectures, the technology continues to make great strides, and many surgeons believe that 3D printing will eventually lead to the creation of transplantable replicas.
As 3D printing technology evolves and becomes more refined, it will continue to have profound effects on the healthcare industry that will improve quality of care and patient outcomes.