Although the incredibly versatile technology of 3D printing was invented for engineers to enjoy prototyping at rapid speed,it has expanded into so much more—driven by imagination—and fueled by specific needs in product development. The possibilities in medical applications are endless too, illustrating what is undeniably now a critical aspect of 3D printing; after all, what could be more important than improving the quality of human lives—or saving them?
One of the most revered and most often discussed benefits of 3D printing is the ability to make strong yet lightweight parts and prototypes that simply were not possible before with conventional technology. This advantage is valuable to the medical industry because the impacts are so positive, so immense, and only just beginning.
The results of 3D printing are commonly so mind-boggling that the first descriptor brought to mind is “magical,” especially when considering the staggering potential in bioprinting. While the ultimate quest for so many researchers is in achieving the true 3D printing of human organs, there are already countless breakthroughs being made with 3D printed tissue—from the liver or kidney, as examples. Once that holy grail is reached it may not look anything like we once expected, but it is just a matter of time before highly functioning 3D printed organs are transplanted into human bodies.
In reality, there is no wizardry involved. Instead, it’s all about that perfect combination of advanced technology, advanced materials,innovation, and the tenacity required to make a difference. The secret to success lies in patient-specific treatment.
The use of 3D printed medical models is multi-layered, and enormously useful. Not only do surgeons benefit by capturing a more detailed picture of rare conditions like brain tumors, but there are extremely valuable educational uses for everyone involved. While the doctor is able to diagnose and plot a course of treatment, they are also able to use a detailed visual aid to explain to the patient what is happening in the body, where, and how treatment and any possible surgery will be performed.
The value for being able to rely on medical models rather than waiting for the availability of cadavers is extraordinary. Realistic,anatomically correct 3D printed models act as advanced training aids for medical students overall, but especially future surgeons. Experienced surgeons may also find themselves training with 3D printed models for weeks at a time as they prepare for rare or completely new procedures. This type of preplanning means more streamlined procedures, less time in the operating room,and great advantage to the patient.
Prosthetics, orthotics & exterior devices
3D printing has made an enormous impact in applications like prosthetics, orthotics, and exterior devices like knee braces. In prosthetics especially, quality of life can be improved for patients who may not have been able to afford limb replacements previously or did not want to wear them due to self-consciousness. For children and individuals of all ages in developing countries, the ability to offer extremely affordable prosthetics that can be made fast is life-changing. These devices can be completely customized to the wearer, offering unprecedented comfort—and in many cases, better options for style too that encourage the patient to actually use their prosthetics.
Orthotics can be made affordably and quickly with completely customized fit. As with prosthetics for children, the ability to 3D print new devices easily is a huge advantage in terms of growth spurts. This is also a huge departure from the past when some devices may have been fitted using conventional technology, with the child outgrowing prosthetics or orthotics before they were even delivered.