3D printing's move to the medical industry is accelerating rapidly, due largely to its ability to offer solutions to patients who seek a more customized form of healthcare, an expert told engineers at this week's Medical Design & Manufacturing East show, co-located with Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, in New York.
Katie Weimer, vice president of medical devices for 3D Systems Corp., said 3D printing's strength lies in its ability to provide custom parts for modern patients who typically want medical devices that fit and look better. "We're moving toward patient-specific, patient-centric healthcare," Weimer told Design News. "And, for that, 3D printing will always be a wonderful tool because of its efficiency in building complex parts."
In a speech titled, "3D Printing: Changing the Game in Healthcare," Weimer cited examples of customized hearing aids, neck braces, fracture casts, orthodontics, prosthetics, orthotics, and dentures that have been custom-designed for 3D printing. She added that tens of thousands of hearing aids have already been manufactured using 3D printers.
"You can print hundreds of them, and they will print in hours, not days," she said.
Signs of mainstream acceptance of the technology are everywhere, she noted. Parade Magazine recently published a story about a girl whose prosthetic hand was 3D printed, and GQ told the story of a man whose face transplant was planned by virtual surgical techniques and 3D printing. Other media outlets have told stories of 3D printed jaws, arms, legs, and spinal disks. To show how mainstream the technology has become, Weimer cited an episode of the well-known television program, Grey's Anatomy, in which characters 3D-printed a reference model of a heart with a complicated tumor in it.
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One of the big advantages of 3D printing is its ability to bring beauty to healthcare products, Weimer said. Eyewear can be custom-printed in various colors and shapes, and fracture casts can be decorated with the names of patients. She also cited the use of 3D printing in the creation of braces for scoliosis patients. Because many scoliosis patients are teenaged girls, ugly braces are unpopular and often go unworn. "Wouldn't a young woman feel better about wearing a brace that's a piece of art?" she asked. "If she feels beautiful in the brace, her compliance increases, and she gets better faster."
Weimer traced the popularity of 3D printing to two events. The first was the invention of the stereolithography printing process by 3D Systems cofounder Chuck Hull in 1983. The second was the coincidental invention of CT scanning and medical imaging, which has made the design of custom medical parts possible.
"It's very difficult to make a patient-specific implant or a patient-specific design if you don't have any data on the patient," Weimer said. "But when you take that data and fast-forward 30 years to today's market, you can see why 3D printing is suddenly going mainstream."
Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. For Design News, he has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos. He wrote his first article about electric cars in 1988.