3D printing has vast applications in medicine and with recent technological advances, is rapidly adapting to the custom needs of patients and healthcare professionals
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping, is the process by which materials like plastic or metal are successively layered on top of each other to produce a solid 3D object. The object is created using computer-aided design software that can incorporate qualities such as colour, texture, specific layer thickness, and different materials into the design. Once the design has been completed, it is virtually ‘sliced’ by the software into multiple horizontal layers that will be extruded by the printer to build up the 3D object.
The application of 3D printing to medicine started with the production of dental implants and prosthetics in the early 2000s. Currently, the overall impact of this tool on healthcare is approximately $11 million, or 2% of a $700 million dollar industry. With recent advances in printing technology and greater accessibility of the general public to 3D printers, it has been projected that its healthcare applications will grow to $2 billion, or 21% of the industry over the next 10 years.
The benefits of 3D printing are enormous. The most important, however, is that 3D printing can be used to produce highly customized and personalized medical products or equipment. Customized items in medicine are traditionally very expensive, and 3D printing alleviates the financial burden through smaller batch production runs and lowered manufacturing costs. Additional direct and indirect benefits to healthcare include: the speed at which items are produced, increased collaboration and design sharing between researchers, shorter patient recovery times, and increased success of implanted materials after surgery.
Through a series of articles, the current application of 3D printing in personalized medicine will be discussed, from its initial use for implants and prosthetics, to surgical practice, drug development, and its potential to revolutionize organ transplantation with tissue bio printing.
Schubert C, van Langeveld MC, Donoso LA. Innovations in 3D printing: a 3D overview from optics to organs. The British Journal of Opthamology, Volume 98, Issue 2, Pages 159-161, 2013.
Ventola, CL. Medical Applications for 3D printing: Current and Projected Uses. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, Volume 39, Issue 10, Pages 704-711, 2014.
Written by Fiona Wong, PhD