3-D Printing and Medicine: Intersections, Questions, and the Future

By James O'Brien

What if you needed a new hip and the one you received could be tailored exactly to the shape of your skeleton? Or, what if your surgeon could grow a blood vessel completely conforming to what's in your body, swapping it out for one that's damaged and needs to be replaced?

These kinds of medical miracles are within reach. Medicine is taking new shape in the realm of 3D printing.

"You want every patient to have the exact hip they used to have," said Dr. Jon Harrop, director of IDTechEx. "And that's precisely what 3D printing provides you."

In the context of this medical future that's unfolding, let's take a closer look at what's happening in the field, and also at the questions this process can raise surrounding the ideas of vetting and ensuring that manufacturers, practitioners, and patients are getting the best results along the way.

New Tools, Visionary Applications

The ability to print living tissue, or to create replacement parts such as knees and hips – even sections of skull – is driving revenue for companies that can work along this cutting edge. According to a recent IDTechEx report, medical and dental applications alone will be worth some $870 million to the industry by 2025.

And these opportunities extend from the complex – hips, knees, and vascular pumps – to examples that are more or less every day, but now cheaper and increasingly free of challenges.

Hearing aids. These devices have been highly customizable for years. But with 3D printing the perfect fit doesn't have to made in the traditionally more expensive and time-consuming ways of the past. Now, a digital scanner maps the inside of the ear, the 3D printer is given the data, and the material is layered by the machine for each patient.

Teeth. Similarly, according to Harrop, scanning a patient's mouth allows for customized responses to damage. "Your dentists have a record of all of the scans of your teeth, your jawbone, everything else," he said. "If something goes wrong, one can use a 3D printer to create a replacement that's exactly the shape your teeth used to be."

The future of 3D printing and medicine isn't confined to in-patient uses, either. Drug manufacturers can explore drug toxicity – not on animals, but on printed material.

"You've got the PR advantage of not testing animals," said Harrop. "And you're testing on actual human tissue. You should get far more accurate results."

Checking the Process, Protecting Participants

If a brave new world of 3D printing prompts thoughts about quality assurances, it should. In the way of almost any manufacturing process, the materials used and the methods involved can pose risks.

The application of materials in 3D printing often consists of the printer head placing a substance at millions of specific points. Each point placed represents a risk for error. And, of course, the materials used are often destined for the inside of our bodies. Those factors, Harrop said, prompt the need for "a very big push … to do with inspection and non-destructive testing.”

"In medicine, we want to know how many defects can we actually detect, if they're in the object?" he continued. "How can we test it without destroying it, after we've made the thing, to ensure that it was made correctly?"

To that end, there is an opportunity for the 3D-printing industry to focus on its testing tech.

"The spearhead of 3D printing is evolving very quickly," said Harrop. "But all of these related technologies that have co-developed for decades with traditional manufacturing processes – non-destructive testing and inspection techniques and so forth – they're not being developed anything like as much … and that could be a real limitation, that could hold it back."

With nothing less than patients' well-being on the line – but also considering the nearly $1 billion in revenue at stake for the industry – testing and inspection are on the cusp of what will be the future of 3D printing. Like the products themselves, if it's a future we are to fully realize, the relationship between manufacturing and quality assurances will have to be a perfect fit.