3 Common Uses for 3D Printing in the Medical Industry

It seems that every day brings with it new stories of how 3D printing is transforming some industry. This is true in medicine as well, where 3D prints are changing how we treat illness and injury. Here are three effects 3D printing has had on the medical field.

Practice Makes Perfect

3D printing is fast and flexible. What once required months of custom design and fabrication is now possible in a few hours. This freedom has made it possible for doctors to print practice organs and body parts on which to hone their technique.

When paired with 3D scanning, 3D printing is especially useful in letting surgeons practice real procedures. For instance, a rare skull defect was treated by first practicing the procedure on a 3D print based on an actual scan. 3D printing makes the rare commonplace, increasing positive outcomes from procedures whose effectiveness would otherwise be limited by lack of opportunity.

Prosthetics on a Budget

Prosthetic limbs are expensive. Made for each individual, they must be custom fit and adjusted over time. Once obtained, they are difficult to modify, and sometimes the benefits of a prosthetic are offset by the additional complications they bring.

3D printing obviates many of these issues. A printed prosthetic often costs significantly less than its traditionally manufactured competitors. They are infinitely customizable, easy to adjust, and are ripe for innovation never before seen in the durable medical industry. For instance, an Oklahoma boy created a prosthetic hand featuring his school colors, thus transforming it from a mark of loss into a stylish personal statement. 3D printing also makes prosthetics accessible to those of reduced means, such as citizens of war-torn countries where the need for artificial limbs is significantly greater.

Not Just Plastics

Today’s common 3D printers work mostly in plastics, with some models using clay and other exotic materials. But experimental designs are raising the bar, printing chemicals and more sophisticated materials that have a more direct impact on the medical field.

Harvard University researchers have made great strides in bioprinting, producing designs containing tissues and blood vessels. As such, it might one day be possible to print an entire organ ready for implantation and resistant to rejection by the immune system. Additionally, University of Glasgow researchers are pioneering ways to print medicines. One day, the drug development process may involve stacking molecules in a design program, then a few hours creating the finished compound at an advanced chemical printer.

3D printing is an enabling, democratizing technology. By placing manufacturing in everyone’s hands, and by lowering the bar for sophisticated fabrication, it is sure to change many fields in the decades to come.

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