The very first “printout” of a 3D printer was a tiny eye wash cup, printed in 1983 by the Father of 3D Printing, Chuck Hall. Over three decades later, 3D printing is leading what Tech Crunch is calling a quiet revolution within the healthcare industry. It has provided some much needed medical relief already in a variety of ways, from offering personalized prosthetics and 3D-printed skin to bioprinting and tissue engineering, as well as avant-garde pharmacology. Having said that, 3D printing still has much more potential, and will fundamentally change the way medical professionals will treat and manage millions of people.
Why 3D Printing is a Perfect Healthcare Solution
A major advantage to 3D printing is the intense customization it allows. It can even create intricate, precise tools, like sterile surgical instruments in small sizes, and even small technologies like cochlear hearing implants. 3D printing truly is a perfect solution for the healthcare industry — but only the skilled few can take on such tasks, as designing key components like printed circuit boards (PCB) for something as tiny as cochlear implants and prosthetic joints needs to be done with precision. In fact, Altium outlines how making a PCB with a 3D printer requires design expertise and good design software to accurately capture the model, which is a reason why the creation of medical items will take time – leading to slow implementation. Despite these extensive requirements, 3D printing is still the better option in healthcare, as explained in 3D Printing in Medicine. That’s because 3D printing addresses the need for patient-specific treatment solutions — in less time but with greater accuracy and reduced costs.
3D printing provides endless possibilities in healthcare. Here are a few.
Giving Amputees Hope
The possibilities for 3D printing are most incredible in the medical field. Case in point, companies like UK-based robotics company Open Bionics is granting amputees renewed hope for 2020 and beyond, as they 3D print prosthetic arms (aptly called the Hero-Arm) that can fit children as young as 9 years old. Moving forward, businesses like Unlimited Tomorrow and iOrthotics both aim to manufacture and create personalized, 3D-printed orthotics, braces, and prosthetic limbs to help many get back up on their feet more quickly.
Improved Preparation for Difficult Surgeries
3D printing is now letting doctors create accurate anatomical models to study and create strategies before difficult surgeries. Doctors at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego are notable practitioners of this hi-tech preparation, as they use MRIs and CAT scans to capture images of afflicted patient organs (hearts, spines, skulls and so on), then print them in 3D. The results are highly accurate physical renderings of said organs, which doctors use to better plan their approach to the most complicated of surgeries. Expect this practice to continue in 2020, with more doctors leveraging the technology to achieve better outcomes in difficult operations.
Better Skin Grafts
Just this year, researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute revealed an innovative method of 3D printing artificial skin. This 3D printed skin, which makes use of advancements in additive manufacturing, contains vasculature, or blood vessels. Printed in two layers, this artificial skin is made up of an impermeable epidermis layer and a dermis layer filled with endothelial cells and pericyte cells. This 3D printed skin is then cultured in vitro, where it develops a relevant vascular structure (a structure composed of blood cells). These artificial blood vessels, in turn, help the artificial skin integrate better with the host person’s skin by permitting the transfer of blood and nutrients between host and graft. This development is a huge leap for biotechnology, one that will surely benefit burn victims.
Diagnosis Aided by 3D Anatomical Models
Late last year, GE Healthcare began a partnership with 3D printer provider Formlabs. The goal of this collaboration is to make it easier for doctors to 3D print anatomy models for patients. These models aren’t one-size-fits-all, but rather, patient-specific (see first section) and based on the patient’s own imaging data. These personalized models, in turn, can be used by doctors as a visual guide when diagnosing a patient. With a 3D printed model, the physician can show exactly what part of one’s body needs medical attention and help patients better understand not only their bodies, but also their diagnosis.
A Growing Market
Given such possibilities, it is unsurprising that the market size of healthcare 3D printing in North America alone is projected to reach approximately $4.79 billion by 2024, and with a CAGR of close to 20.90%. Those figures will surely rise once 3D printing fulfills more of its vast promise.