The innovations available with 3D printing and additive manufacturing are constantly evolving and advancing. In no area is this perhaps more evident than in the medical field. Almost daily, we can see an explosion in this use of 3D printing for cosmetic facial reconstruction, prosthetic limb production, creating personalized medication, and even building organs and tissue. ProtoCAM has our own hand in the medical industry, creating parts and prototypes for demonstration and practical application.
One of the most revolutionary innovations 3D printing has allowed is for the printing of living organs and tissues. Organ transplant lists can be hundreds of names long and patients can wait years to receive a viable organ. Transplants themselves are tricky as the organs need to be transferred quickly, and there is always the possibility for organ rejection. Bioprinting helps to make organs more accessible to patients. The process includes printing two dimensional layers which are then stacked into 3D structures and immediately frozen to promote better conditions for transport. Various biomaterials are currently available for this sort of printing, and ever expanding to accommodate the printing of various organs for each unique patient.
3D printing also has the ability create non-organic but fully functional limb replacement as well as implants for bone and joint replacement. Tilley Lockey, a double arm amputee, is a particularly strong advocate for the practice of using 3D printing for prosthetics, because of the technology’s ability to make each limb personalized for the user. This is particularly important for children, as traditional prosthetics can be heavy and require replacement yearly. Open Bionics, a company for which Lockey is an ambassador, takes these items into consideration and prints lightweight, more cost-efficient plastic prosthetics that are easily altered through the 3D printing process and CAD file creation. Internally-implanted 3D printed replacement parts are also on the rise, as in the case of Linda Edwards, who was fitted with a 3D-printed sternum implant. 3D printing is more often becoming an option in situations like this where reconstruction is not possible, and patients previously had no other alternatives.
Personalization for each individual patient is so important when considering patient care the medical field, as one-size-fits-all options often are not ideal. Another example of how 3D printing is allowing for personalization as it relates to improved patient care is in the creation of personalized 3D-printed medication. FabRx is at the forefront of this innovation with their 3D printed medication called Printlets. The method allows for customized dosages, sizes, and shapes of medication, printed on-demand in hospitals, which will reduce the need for large stocks of medication and the number of expired medications.
Here at ProtoCAM, we are often called upon to 3D print human or animal bones using our stereolithography (SLA) technology. Our ability to produce incredibly detailed models using this technology means we can create educational medical tools that are as true to real life as possible. Printing with clear and colored materials also allows us to create demonstrative models where all the elements of a particular body part—skin, veins, muscle tissue, etc.—are clearly visible. Increasingly sophisticated technologies, like our PolyJet printer, can also allow for different materials, colors, and durometers (hardness levels) to be printed all within one model in a single build.
We also utilize our casting technology to produce wax castings for knee and joint replacements. Once the wax casting is produced at our facility, the final product is created utilizing molten metal, and is then surgically inserted into the patient. We also utilize casting to produce housing for ophthalmic diagnostic equipment with full finishing, decals, and painting.
We even have a hand in artificial intelligence by producing parts for robotics in the medical industry; we were recently asked to help create parts that will be built into robotics integrated into hospitals to help deliver drugs to patients, much like the robots that are already at work in grocery stores around the country.
3D printing has contributed much to expanding the capabilities of the medical field beyond even what we’ve mentioned here. Dentistry has benefited from the printing of clear aligners, while medical labs can rely on the speed and low cost of 3D printing their own personalized equipment. There are endless other applications for this technology within the medical field, and with such innovation at its disposal, it’s easy to imagine a future where medical care and recovery is painless, accessible, and best of all, fast, allowing citizens to live the healthiest lives possible. We can’t wait to see what comes next!