In the last 45 minutes, you’ve probably used an electronic device produced by a 3D printer – from the fidget toy on your desk to your office security key card.
3D printing – known formally as additive manufacturing – began in the late 1980s. It’s a digital manufacturing process that creates three-dimensional objects, layer upon layer, using a variety of polymers, metals and ceramics. 3D printing has a broad spectrum of applications in a variety of industries, from aerospace and architecture to automotive and defense.
And it may be just the technology that opens doors to medical innovation and achieving the nearly impossible. Because 3D printers allow for unique customizations, they are a vital tool for the healthcare industry, where there is often a need to find solutions on a personalized level. 3D printing enables the use of medical imaging data to create patient-specific devices and the manufacturing of structures that are difficult to produce traditionally.
The meld between 3D printing and healthcare
3D printing was used in the healthcare industry as early as 2000, when hearing aid cases were printed for the first time; within a few years they became the industry standard. Since then, 3D printing has produced everything from 3D printed skin ears to bone scaffolds to heart valves.
And the innovations keep coming. In the last year, 3D printing has created:
- 3D printed medication that produces pills in a complex construct of layers – giving patients one single pill that offers treatment for everything they need
- Eye sockets that help blind children’s faces grow naturally
- Prosthetic ovaries that may help restore fertility in cancer survivors
- Prosthetic hands and arms
- Bionic skin that could give robots the ability to feel their environment
- Printable synthetic cartilage that allow doctors to customize joint replacements
- Patient specific arm splints that ensure better support
Will there be a 3D printer in every doctor’s office and hospital in the near future? Probably not. Creating regulatory standards for the printers and all of their products will be complicated. And the expense of a process that cannot mass produce is daunting. Nevertheless, there’s no question that 3D printing offers exciting prospects for the future of health.