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3D Printing in Healthcare

But the big idea that I want to discuss with you, is not that 3D printing is going to catapult us into the future, but rather that it’s actually going to connect us with our heritage, and it’s going to usher in a new era of localized, distributed manufacturing that is actually based on digital fabrication.

- Avi Reichental (CEO of 3D Systems)


What Is 3D Printing?


Image is courtesy of kynny, iStockphoto.


Three-dimensional printing or additive manufacturing is a process that converts a digital file into a 3D object. Most manufacturing processes use the subtractive method of cutting something out of the existing material, such as drilling or sawing through metal. In contrast, 3D printing is additive since it builds upon layers to create the desired shape.


All designs must start with a model that is created with 3D modeling software. This process allows the machine to execute intricate designs while maximizing efficiency. The next step is to slice the model. Slicing software breaks down the model into hundreds or thousands of layers and provides printing instructions for the 3D printer. Once the modeling and slicing are completed, the 3D printer can print the object independently.


3D printing uses various materials such as metals like stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, plastics, ceramics, liquids, powders, and even living cells used in a process called bioprinting.


While 3D printing was previously used for prototypes, it is transforming into a manufacturing process that shows potential, particularly in health science.


How Is 3D Printing Used in Healthcare?


Bioprinting


According to C. Lee Ventola, 3D bioprinting is the process that uses living cells, biochemicals, and other biocompatible materials to imitate a biological functioning substance. Currently, bioprinting is used for drug research and the repair of ligaments and tissues. Although 3D bioprinting is still a developing practice, it could repair or even wholly replace body parts in the future.


A record in 2019 shows that there were 3053 total organ transplants in Canada while 4419 patients were still on the waiting list. Additionally, a study in 2009 shows that of the 154,324 patients in the US waiting for an organ transplant, only 27,996 (18% of) patients received their transplant.


Bioprinting can solve this issue by providing an efficient alternative that increases accessibility and saves lives instead of the inconsistencies of relying on scarce organ donors.


Custom Prosthetics


What makes prosthetics so complex is that they cannot be done through mass production, as every person has a unique limb shape. Not only are 3D printed prosthetics more lightweight, but with personalized designs and colors, they can empower and restore confidence in patients, and especially in children.


A custom designed 3D printed leg prosthetic (Melissa Ng).


Research shows that approximately 38 million people in the world need prosthetics within any given year, but only 10% have access and can receive them. Additionally, while a traditional custom-made prosthetic can take a few weeks, 3D printing only takes up to a day to create the same product.

Organizations such as Nia Technologies are currently working to develop efficient software and disperse 3D printing technology globally so that citizens from less developed nations have equal opportunities and services.


Custom Medication and Dosage


Another innovative technique that employs 3D printing is the creation of custom medication. With the wide range of materials that 3D printing can use in printing objects, there are many applications of 3D printing in the testing and production of drugs. Pills can be printed in complex structures and customized sizes to reduce the difficulty of swallowing.

Although patients may have the same disease, they require different treatment plans and medication dosages. As opposed to the limitation of traditional pharmaceutical processes, 3D printing allows tablets to be created in any size, increasing the accuracy of the dosage amount.


COVID-19 Response


Amidst the world currently experiencing a widespread pandemic, the demand for protective equipment has never been higher. This has led to the unavailability of conventional products, especially for countries currently in more severe stages. 3D printing poses a promising solution as it can even be used to create personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, and respirators.

Although technology currently allows for the printing of Covid 19 protection products, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that 3D printed masks and PPE may not provide a proper fluid protection barrier and air filtration.

Currently, America Makes, a national 3D printing innovation institution, is working with federal agencies like the FDA to resolve 3D printing health devices' technological complications.


Why 3D Printing? What are the Benefits?


1. Customization of Medical Equipment


Custom prosthetics, implants, and medical tools allow for more freedom and flexibility in healthcare. Allowing more internal accuracy can also improve the quality of equipment and increase the success rate of surgeries.


2. Cheaper Cost


Although mass production of traditional manufacturing is cheap, the use of 3D printing in custom-made equipment is significantly cheaper than traditional small-scale production. This also provides benefits for companies that produce smaller amounts of the same product.


3. Higher Efficiency


3D printing of healthcare products regardless of customization can be produced in as little as a few hours which is significantly less than the time it takes to cast, forge, and deliver traditional prosthetics or implants. This increases the accessibility of medical treatments for all patients while contributing to the decrease of socio-economic barriers.


What Are The Drawbacks of 3D Printing?


Although 3D printing has advantages in customization and intricacy, efficient production is still very limited to certain products. For instance, 3D printing chambers are generally smaller in size which means larger health science equipment must be printed in separate parts before they are joined together through manual labor.


In terms of efficiency and cost, 3D printing cannot outcompete products such as PPE and surgical masks that are suitable for mass production. Lastly, since much of the 3D printing process is autonomous, there is less need for human workers.


In the long term, this technology can put jobs at risk and harm the economy in areas with more unemployment and a smaller workforce.


Final Thoughts


As technology improves and breakthroughs are made to overcome the drawbacks, 3D printing may become a game-changing aspect in healthcare and for modern society as a whole.



Article Author: Rachel Weng

Article Editors: Olivia Ye, Stephanie Sahadeo