After years of living in the world of academics and industrial designers, 3D printing is now regularly making news in the world of healthcare.
When you think about this technology, it is ideal for healthcare. Each of us is subtly different. What could be better than being able quickly and efficiently to make custom products to replace – or help repair – aging or damaged body parts. This is real Trekkie stuff!
“Nurse would you call down to the 3D print room and see if Mr. Darby’s ear has printed out yet?”
Fictional … yes. But possible? Not today, but highly probably in the near future … amazing!
3D printing is not new. It has been slowly evolving for the past 30 years. In its early years it was severely limited by the print material and its ability to make structurally strong products. Today you can make multi-colored objects as hard as steel or as flexible as plastic. 3D printing is ideal for short production runs or one-off custom jobs. It has captured the imagination of designers, architects, academics and hobbyists who want to cradle their creations in their hands, rather than stare at them on a flat piece of paper or computer screen. Today, 3D printing is used in aerospace to make stronger and lighter cabin designs, in the automotive market to make new engine castings, in fashion houses to make jewelry, and at home to build toys, lamp shades, or just art.
The key to the future of 3D printing is the development of new and better materials that can be fed into the printer, together with new and better processes to cure them. Arcam AB of Sweden specializes in 3D printing of orthopedic implants, like cranio-maxillofacial implants for major reconstructive head and neck surgery, or implants that are 3D-printed together with fine structures that will maximize the ability of existing bone to grow into the implant and minimize rejection. The German company, EnvisionTEC, sells the 3Dent printer specially designed to make high quality dental models of jaws and implants. They also sell printers to make personalized hearing aids in a wide range of colors. Medical researchers have developed methods to reproduce human ears that look and behave like the real thing for patients with congenital deformity and cannot hear properly. The world’s leading 3D print company, 3D Systems of South Carolina, sells printers that make custom prosthetics, hip and other personalized implants. Perhaps one of the most amazing breakthroughs is biofabrication. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland have shown that it is possible to 3D print using embryonic human stem cells.
It may not be too long before we will be able to 3D print new artificial organs and new tissue. With nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. waiting for a kidney transplant, just think of the benefits of being able to print a new kidney tailor-made for your immune system, to minimize the waiting period and the possibility of rejection. Researchers are even looking at 3D printing customized drugs through molecular assembly.
The new phase for 3D printer is likely to become a “personal matter fabricator.”
Oh and before you ask … Yes … Hewlett Packard is also involved in the market. So in the future will we need a sticker that says “HP Inside?”