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Viewpoints Blog: The New World of 3D Printing Medicine--Is It New?

Lauralyn McDaniel

By Lauralyn McDaniel
Industry Manager, Medical
Manager, Innovation Watch, MicroManufacturing, Medical Manufacturing Innovations

Dramatic headlines such as “Airway Created with a 3D Printer Saved This Baby’s Life” and “Listening To The Future With A 3D Printed Ear ” imply that the use of this technology in medicine is a new way to save and improve lives.  But, really, it’s not so new.

It was more than ten years ago that I first learned how 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) was being used in the medical field, and it continues to amaze me how quickly this technology advances and impacts medical care.

And yet, if you step back, it makes sense that medical uses top the advances in additive manufacturing.  The combination of 3D imaging technology (MRI, CT) to create patient-specific digital images and the ability to print from this data is compelling to an industry always looking for ways to improve and even change lives.

My first impression of 3D printing was that it was fascinating, but useful only for prototyping or to make simple toys. How wrong I was!  2001 was the year it became clear that medical device manufacturers would play a leadership role in taking the technology beyond use as a product development tool. That was when I learned that 3D printing was used to manufacture end-use cases for hearing aids. Using digital image of the ear canal, the hearing aid manufacturer printed the case to fit snugly. Within a couple years, it was the industry standard for manufacturing hearing aid cases.

In 2002 there was a huge leap forward when CT and MRI data was used to print anatomical models of conjoined twins Mohamed and Ahmed Ibrahim. Created by Medical Modeling, the models were used for everything from creation of the custom bed to mapping of important vessels during the separation surgery completed successfully in 2003. Since then, using the technology for planning these types of very complicated surgeries is an accepted, even expected approach.
This medical illustration shows the anatomy of the twins external skin structures with brain vasculature showing through.  The CT scan of their anatomy was used as the basis for this illustration.  (Illustration by Medical Modeling LLC, 2003)

The use of 3D printing was not reserved for the dramatic cases. More than ten years ago, we began seeing the technology in dental offices helping to create straighter smiles. 3D images of teeth were first fed into a CAD program to create model iterations to transition to straight teeth. These models were 3D printed and used for the molds creating a series of invisible trays.

Today, trying to find all the examples of the use of the technology in medical manufacturing and medicine is near impossible. Just a few are:

  • Dental bridges: In some European countries, 3D printed bridges have almost completely replaced precision castings for dental bridges. Using an intraoral scanner instead of an impression tray saves time and increases the speed with which dental care can be administered.
  • Surgical instruments: Developed together with surgeons, custom, surgery and patient-specific metal instruments have been made and used for new techniques and unique surgeries. Sterile plastic instruments have also been 3D printed in battlefield environments enabling quicker and safer treatment of wounded soldiers.
  • Implants
  • Spinal Cages: Patient-specific data is used to build implantable titanium devices used in spinal fusion surgery.
  • Cranial: Walter Reed Hospital has been a leader in using 3D printed implants for head injuries as well as limb replacement.
  • Hip: The technology has also been used to print hip replacements components with unique surfaces replacing the need for additional coatings.
  • Jaw: The first 3D printed jaw bone was implanted last year by Dr. Joules Poukens in The Netherlands.
  • Bone scaffolds: Another form of implants, bone scaffolds can be made specific to the bone loss or break to help heal the bone to a more natural state diminishing the need for clunkier plates and screws.Emma Hugs Mom
  • Unique devices: The story of Emma’s “magic arms” that allowed the two-year old to play, feed herself and even hug is one example. A version of the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX), an assistive device made of hinged metal bars, was made using the lighter weight and customizable designs of 3D printing better suited for a small child.

Where will we see 3D printing used next? In what ways will it be used to improve quality of life, even save lives? With the development of new bioresorbable and biocompatible materials, we’re sure to see more examples of the airway splint, including replacement organs. Sounds a little out there? We’ve already seen early examples with the implantation of lab grown bladders implanted in patients as long as seven years ago.

So is the use of 3D printing in medicine new? While it seems like science fiction or even fantasy, I think the medical world has always amazed us. Using 3D printing is just another way they’re sure to use all the tools available.

You can hear more and see some of these at RAPID 2013, June 10-12 in Pittsburgh. Visit the Medical Manufacturing Innovation Center at booth 912 or tune into the YouTube channel to catch some of the presentations live from Pittsburgh.


Published Date : 5/29/2013

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