3-D (or 3D) printer technology is a type of additive manufacturing which started in the 1980s – but has taken off at an accelerating rate because it can do so much in so little time for such a low cost.
Wikipedia says, “Additive manufacturing material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with material being added together (such as liquid molecules or powder grains being fused together)…Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry.”
To really appreciate the capabilities of 3D printing, check out this YouTube video which shows a big printer building a house in one day!
The opportunities offered by this amazing new technology are not lost on the medical world. Prosthetic (artificial) body parts of all kinds are being printed and saving lives.
Medical models (“blueprints”) are available for free online to make not only artificial limbs – but almost any other object you could outline or draw. Can you believe that a high school senior named Ian McHale posted online a free model for making finger splints? (He did have some help from his mentor, Dr. Richard Siderits of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton.)
Ian McHale & Dr. Richard Siderits with 3D printed finger splints
“Thousands of 3D printed replacements for bony body parts: knees, hips, ankles, parts of the spine, and skull, are implanted every year,” an ASME (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers) article tells us.
Incredible success stories revolving around medical 3D printing are common. Here is just one example from thousands of astonishing results:
3D Printing Industry recounted the heartening story of Kaiba Gionfriddo, a premature baby whose windpipe collapsed, stopping his breathing. “Then, his caregivers 3D printed a bioresorbable device that instantly helped Kaiba breathe.”
3D printing also applies extremely well for dental patients. Since every mouth is unique, dentists can create a customized scan for every bite guard, bleaching tray, crown, veneer or inlay. Invisalign “invisible braces” to straighten teeth was one of the first dental applications of 3D printing. Today, parent company Align Technology prints 650,000 pairs of these braces a day!
Dental 3D printing technology continues to evolve, and companies like Formlabs are marketing complete systems for dental practices.
Forbes reported that “ninety-five percent of all hearing aids are today 3D printed.” But that’s not all: healthcare providers are rapidly advancing the manufacturing of replacement human organs from biological materials.
For example, Lawrence Bonassar of Cornell University used a 3-D printer in one campus building to deposit cells contained in a hydrogel that develop into new ear tissue. The printer gets its instructions from a digital file created from 3D photographs of human ears taken with a scanner in a different campus building.
Vision clinics can print prescription eyeglasses, and 3DPrint discusses a team that is developing a “bionic eye” to restore eyesight from macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, or other ocular ailment.
Hospitals, too, are embracing the benefits reaped from 3D printing. Dedicated labs are being set up within a healthcare complex or campus to reduce the time needed to produce a newly printed part.
Across all medical fields, 3D printing is used primarily for printing patient-specific models before a procedure. A physical copy of a tumor or diseased organ can be produced and studied before the initial incision. Doctors new to a surgery can “practice up” on the identically modeled part before facing it in the operating room.
Move over, “Six Million Dollar Man” Steve Austin and “Bionic Woman” Jaime Sommers: soon, we may all depend upon – and enjoy the advantages of – artificial parts!