3D printing tomorrow’s body parts, today

3D printing is revolutionising the possibilities of manufacturing. How could we apply such a practice to healthcare and, more importantly, what could it signal for patients?

Additive manufacturing has existed since the early 1980s, when prototypes in industrial manufacturing were first produced. In recent years, however, researchers have applied the technology to a number of other industries. The medical sector is one such industry, with healthcare and biological applications making up around 14% of the global additive manufacturing market - the third largest behind aerospace and industrial manufacturing.

Latest results indicate that this equated to $354.5m in 2012. This figure is set to rise to $965.5m by 2019. Tapping into this trend is no mean feat and manufacturers need to forge strong partnerships to harness its full potential.

Head, shoulders, knees and toes

While the 3D printed human body might still be a pipe dream, there is an increasing use of additive manufacturing in the production of artificial body parts - particularly prosthetics. Here, materials are joined to make objects from 3D model data, layer upon layer. This differs from traditional subtractive manufacturing methodologies, where a design is shaped by removing material from a central mass. This new approach has implications on the level of detail, accuracy and variation that can now be achieved for prosthetics and implants throughout the body.

It is now possible to print highly customised versions of amputees’ prostheses, which can be tailored for specific activities like running, cycling or even fashion lines. Additive manufacturing is also being used in the production of artificial joints such as hip and knee replacements. These can be highly customised, which typically results in better clinical outcomes for the patients (through comfort and pain reduction), shorter hospital stays (due to reduced recovery periods) and more expedient surgical procedures (because personalised implants require fewer adjustments during surgery).

Made-to-fit

The knee is the largest and one of the most complicated joints in our body. Conventional systems used for knee replacements, however, are standardised and are simple approximations of patients’ joints. These estimations are based on knee anatomy data, with adjustments made during the surgical procedure.

Of course, standardised implants still help patients lead an active lifestyle, but in many cases, patients face complications after surgery as a result of the imperfect fit. However, the introduction of 3D printing means it is now possible to produce highly personalised systems.

The designs are unique to the patient, based on factors like their age and bone density, the type of surgery, even the patient’s anatomy and lifestyle. The result is an almost perfect fit, with uniform stress distribution, and better load bearing capacity. This personalisation also helps the surgeon perform cuts in the bone and soft tissue exactly where they need to be, meaning minimal adjustments in surgery are required.

Taking on the world together

The detailed customisation that additive manufacturing provides has resulted in a growing demand for the technology. This could become the future of prosthetics, both internal and external. This rise in demand will put inevitably put pressure on manufacturers; how can they overcome the challenges in supplying to the global market?

Effective management of the supply chain is crucial. Strategic partnerships, with vendors who have the necessary expertise on a global scale, lie at the heart of this.

If we take personalised knee systems, for instance, there are areas where a vendor partnership can facilitate production and global distribution. Specialist capabilities in design and development, and access to experienced concurrent engineers helps to ensure that high quality can be maintained. With personalised knee systems, this manifests itself in specialised design software tailored to crafting detailed made-to-fit products. With access to global supplier networks, vendors can help manufacturers break down cultural barriers and simultaneously create products at more competitive prices.

Printing the future

Continued progress in additive manufacturing will depend on further research into the range of materials with which to print. Even if we are some way away from recreating body parts of the greatest complexity, perhaps the most exciting area for development is bioprinting. This extends the principles used in custom prosthetics to living tissue.

While 3D printing is still in its infancy, its use in healthcare has a strong foundation. What is most exciting is that the true limits of what can be achieved have yet to be explored.

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