Additive Manufacturing and The Medical Industry

The medical industry is always an early adopter of new and innovative technology, and this has certainly been the case with additive manufacturing and 3D printing.

Very early on in the lifecycle of additive manufacturing, surgeons were able to use the technology to foresee potential complications and provide more accurate operation times. This was all done by assessing a printed 3D model of a part of the patient’s anatomy. It took little time for medical professionals to become accustomed to using 3D printing because of their familiarity with scanning and modelling technology.

additive manufacturing and the medical industry
A modelled heart which has been 3D printed. Source: Cell Culture Dish

Every patient’s body is different, so it’s interesting to see how medical additive manufacturing is used to solve this issue. Dental implants can be designed and printed to fit perfectly, instead of using a standard implant model and modifying it. Feet can be modelled so that perfectly fitted shoe insoles can be printed, and can then be modified further to fit any particular shoe. Hearings aids can be printed to sit comfortably because the design is based on the contours and internal canal of the intended wearer’s ear. The creative uses of additive manufacturing and 3D printing seem endless!

additive manufacturing and the medical industry
A custom designed 3D printed hearing aid. Source: 3D Printers Canada.
additive manufacturing and the medical industry
3D printed shoe insoles, available from Thingiverse user Gyrobot who has a great guide on how to customise them.

The future looks bright for the medical use of additive manufacturing. Bioprinting, which is the 3D printing of organs and other parts of the anatomy, is set to be the next big milestone. While the printing of functioning organs and limbs is likely a long time away, smaller uses of bioprinting are taking place today. Skin which can be grafted onto a burn victim has been printed using cells gathered from the patient, and scaffolding designed to support the healing of damaged organs have been successfully implanted into patients.

The prospect of printing off organs and body parts when needed is exciting and something of great interest to me, however we will always be reliant on the hard work of those how care for us in the medical capacity. So, in the meantime, a huge thank you to all healthcare workers for all that you do!