Additive manufacturing, which also is referred to as “manufacturing with 3D printing,” is a technology that was first introduced in the 1980s. The process involves using computer modeling to create three-dimensional objects by printing successive solid layers of appropriate material, including plastics, metals and more.
Since its introduction, this technique has been adapted and used by a variety of industries. While it is now common practice for many manufacturers to create parts for cars, airplanes, or even electrical appliances using 3D printing, this technology also has had a large impact in the medical field.
This type of technology has the potential to disrupt and improve the medical field as a whole. As a result, there has been a great investment in understanding how to best utilize 3D printing to maximize patient care and outcomes. Research and experimentation with different applications is being done all over the world, including right here in West Michigan.
With downtown Grand Rapids’ flourishing Medical Mile, it is no secret that this area is a hub for medical innovation and research. Right now, community partners are working together on a collaborative research program that explores applications in final medical device manufacturing.
In addition to medical devices, 3D printing has played a large role in other major medical advancements. Here are a few of the most incredible ways that 3D printing technology is being applied to the industry:
One of the major goals for 3D printing in the medical industry is to eventually be able to print an entire human organ that would be viable for transplant. While it has not been achieved just yet, this would be done via bioprinting, which layers living cells instead of plastic or metal. Researchers have been hard at work for years ensuring this will someday be possible. Scientists already have successfully printed kidney cells, cardiac tissue and parts of a human liver.
It is common for amputees to have to wait weeks or even months for their prosthetics, since traditional manufacturing methods take a long time. With 3D printing, care providers can quickly produce prosthetic limbs that are perfectly customized to the specific patient.
This technology also allows for a lower product cost, which ensures that more people can afford the devices they need. Lower costs also are helpful for the families of children because younger patients tend to quickly outgrow their prosthetic limbs.
Strides are being made so that 3D printing also will benefit burn survivors and skin cancer patients. Once the technology is validated, care providers will be able to print skin grafts that can be directly applied to the body. This type of innovation has been in development since 2010 and is continually advancing.
3D printing also is having a positive impact on joint replacement surgeries. Prior to additive manufacturing, when performing knee replacement surgery, surgeons would either adjust the patient’s bone or change the standard issue knee replacement in order to create a desired fit. This type of precise adjustment takes extreme skill from a surgeon; the slightest error can lead to increased pain and reduced mobility for patients.
Now, with 3D printing, medical professionals can ensure the new knee fits perfectly to the patient’s exact physical anatomy. Because joints withstand very high forces, it is important to use strong materials, like metal. This is made possible by utilizing a method called laser sintering, which uses a high-powered laser to fuse small particles, layer by layer. This new custom option has led to faster recovery times and increased comfort for patients.
Having sterile, on-demand surgical tools is extremely important, and 3D printers now can be used to create devices such as forceps, hemostats, clamps and scalpel handles. With drastically lower production costs, 3D printing will ensure no surgery team is ever short of important devices.
Small, precise tools also can be created using this technology, which allows surgeons to operate using very focused and minimally invasive methods. These small tools help to avoid causing unnecessary discomfort and recovery to the patient.
3D printing technology has played a significant role in some of the most amazing medical advancements to date. As we move into the future and new research is completed, the complexity of 3D-printed parts and the ability of manufacturers to run cost-effective small- and mid-level production only will continue to grow. As an industry manufacturer and developer, we are excited to see what comes next and be a part of the revolution.