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Revolutionizing Medicine: 3D Printing Trends & Outlook for 2020

Updated on May 19, 2016
Potential of 3D Printing
Potential of 3D Printing

FDA Approves 3D Printing of Medical Devices

The medical revolution is here, bringing hope to thousands, even possibly millions. In May 2016, the FDA released guidelines for the 3D printing of medical devices. With this, the FDA has proven the value of additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing as it is popularly called, this technology for the medical industry. “AM has the advantage of facilitating the creation of anatomically-matched devices and surgical instrumentation by using a patient’s own medical imaging.

Another advantage is the ease in fabricating complex geometric structures, allowing the creation of engineered porous structures, tortuous internal channels, and internal support structures that would not be easily possible using traditional (non-additive) manufacturing approaches,” the FDA was quoted as saying by the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society. This is a promising turn of events, given that research has proven that this technology can be applied to various areas of medicine.

3D Printing of the Human Body
3D Printing of the Human Body

Applications of 3D Printing in Medical Treatment

Although it almost seems like something out of a Sci-Fi movie, three-dimensional or 3D printing is a method to manufacture objects by depositing or fusing materials, including metal, plastic, powders, ceramics, livings and even living tissue and cells, layer by layer to create a three-dimensional object, says a study titled Innovations in 3D Printing: A 3D Overview from Optics to Organs and published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology in February 2014.

Ever since the invention of this technology, scientists have been working on expanding its medical applications, such that today it is poised to revolutionize healthcare. For now, the actual and potential medical applications of 3D printing include the creation of anatomical models, customized prosthetics, tissue and organs, implants and even drugs, says a study published in the Pharmacy & Therapeutics journal of the NCBI in October 2014. The paper goes on to say, “The application of 3D printing in medicine can provide many benefits, including: the customization and personalization of medical products, drugs, and equipment; cost-effectiveness; increased productivity; the democratization of design and manufacturing; and enhanced collaboration.”

Here’s a look at the potential for applied manufacturing in the field of medicine.

3D Printing of Organs
3D Printing of Organs
3D Printing of Surgical Tools
3D Printing of Surgical Tools

Manufacturing Medical & Surgical Tools

It was as far back as 2010, when the devastating earthquake in Haiti claimed more than 100,000 lives and destroyed over 60% of the nation’s existing health care facilities. It was 3D printing that came to the rescue, manufacturing medical devices for humanitarian purposes, says an article published in 3DPrint.com in May 2015. Also in 2015, an article in The Future of Things mentioned that bioengineering students from the University of British Columbia won an award for engineering and 3D printing of an extremely effective and novel surgical smoke evacuator.

Other medical devices being manufactured with this technology include surgical clamps, scalpel handles, hemostats, forceps, and more. The even better news is that this technology makes the manufacturing of these devices significantly cheaper, at about one-tenth the cost of producing the devices in stainless steel, according to Medical Design Technology magazine.

3D Printing of Medical Implants
3D Printing of Medical Implants
3D Printed Organs
3D Printed Organs

Replicating Organs

Although research is still to create an entire organ through this printing technology that can successfully be used for surgical purposes, printed kidney cells, cardiac tissue and even the fundamental basis of the human liver have successfully been recreated. According to the Walls Street Journal, Hod Lipson, head of the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University, has prototyped the bioprinting of tissue for the human cartilage. Lipson and his associates are hard at work to expand their understanding of the process to bioprint bones and even stem cells.

In the meantime, in Germany, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute have been able to create blood vessels using 3D printing and artificial biological cells, says an article on fabricating artificial blood cells in LiveScience. Similarly, researchers at Harvard Medical Institute, University of Rostock, Germany, and the University of Sidney, Australia, have been working on applying 3D printing technology to heart repair. They have successfully tested human cell heart patches on rats and have developed artificial cardiac tissue that effectively mimics the biological and mechanical properties of the human heart.

3D Printing Outllook
3D Printing Outllook
The First 3D Printed Jaw
The First 3D Printed Jaw

Low Cost Prosthetics

This is possibly one area where advancements in technology can bring hope to many. Today, the manufacturing of prosthetics the traditional way tends to be very time consuming, expensive and even destructive. Making them a distant dream for those with low resources. Researchers at the University of Toronto, in collaboration with Autodesk Research and CBM Canada, have been suing applied manufacturing techniques to produce quick, cheap and easy to customize prosthetics sockets for people in developing countries, says an article by Autodesk Research, published in 2014. Another article published the same year by 3ders.org discussed how Not Impossible Labs, based in California, was creating artificial limbs for people left amputated as a result of the war in Sudan.

In fact, this technology has also given hope for dentistry, with 3D printed titanium implants and artificial jaws already in use to help people with jaw disfigurement following accidents, surgeries or tumours. An article in Mail Online, published in May 2016, said that such implants offered a ray of hope for people with jaw cancer, saving them from disfigurement. Maxillofacial prosthodontist, Dr. Gary Horblitt, says that maxillofacial prosthetics produced using 3D printing technology can give hope even to people with congenital conditions that disfigure the mouth and jaw, those who have lost a portion of their tongue or jaw, as well as those with neurological deficiencies.

3D Printing of the Jaw
3D Printing of the Jaw
4D Printed Trachea Implant
4D Printed Trachea Implant

What the Future Holds in Store

While applied manufacturing technology has already found applications in the consumer goods, aerospace, defense and automotive industries, possibly the most important applications come from the medical and dental fields. While researchers and manufacturers are both investigating the printing of organic materials, scientists believe that this technology can be useful not only for treatment but also for diagnostics and training. In fact, figures released in April 2016 by Fast Market Research, in a paper titled 3D Printing Materials Market - Global Forecasts to 2021, say that the 3D printing materials market is expected to grow from $530.1 million in 2016 to $1,409.5 million by 2021, representing a CAGR of 21.60% from 2016 through 2021. Taking it a step further, researchers at the University of Michigan have created a 4D printed trachea.

At the RAPID conference, held in May 2016 and reported by TCT Magazine, Dr Scott Hollister and Dr Robert Morrison presented a keynote address on the applications of 4D printing in the field of medicine. They defined this technology as one that would allow an implant to grow “when exposed to the pressure of human growth.” Believe it or not, we are seeing a whole new era of medical care even as we live and breathe!

3D Printing Industry Forecast
3D Printing Industry Forecast

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