Think “surgical tools,” and images of scalpels, forceps and hemostats might come to mind. Nowadays, robotic surgical systems might enter the mental picture, too. But rapid prototyping and 3-D imaging systems are increasingly making an impact in the operating room.
Medical device makers have long used prototyping and imaging systems the way other engineers do — to create prototypes and testing models of their products. But these systems have inched their way closer to patients in a couple of ways.
For one, they're increasingly being used to create complex models that can help surgeons visualize and even practice difficult surgical procedures. For another, they have started to see use producing medical and dental implants customized for a specific patient. This emerging use has been made possible, in part, by the ability of some metal-based additive fabrication processes to produce parts from medical-friendly ceramics and metal alloys, including titanium.
Rapid 2008, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' annual exhibition and conference on additive fabrication and 3-D imaging, spotlighted both types of medical uses with a collection of technical papers on the creation of medical models, as well as custom facial and dental implants in existing and new materials.
To take one example that spans both the modeling and implant applications, Nancy Hairston of MedCad detailed how the company uses 3-D scanning, data imported from medical imaging systems and digital manufacturing techniques to develop anatomical models. These models see use both in surgical planning and as the basis for custom implants, according to Hairston. “Better imaging and direct manufacturing has made mass customization in medical possible now,” she says.
In her presentation, Hairston detailed the application of these technologies to a difficult facial surgery to correct the asymmetrical jaw of a 16-year-old female patient, who required bone removal and implants to correct the cant. Using a process developed in conjunction with Dr. Ron Caloss at the University of Texas Southwestern Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Dept., MedCad transformed data of CT scans of the patient into 3-D models of the jaw area, allowing the surgeon to better plan the procedure. The same data was also leveraged to actually produce precision implants. “In the past, these implants would have been made by hand in the operating room, which doesn't result in the same precision fit,” Hairston says.
And it looks like MedCad will have no shortage of patients to help. The company has also been working with surgeons at Lackland Air Force Base to create custom implants for soldiers needing complex reconstructive surgeries after suffering injuries in combat.