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Aniruddha Srinath is part of the Product Realization Team at Cyient.

@Cyient

Why the time is now for 3D printing in the medical world: Part 1

In recent years, 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has emerged as one of the most in-demand technologies in the world, and is changing the lives of millions worldwide. Its rise is often considered synonymous with industrial manufacturing and to have been boosted by enhancement in digital technologies.

Last year, the capabilities of 3D printing in the medical sector started to be explored in greater detail than ever before, building on years of development in this area. Indeed, thanks to the renewed time and investment placed in the technology in recent times, it is now the source of some of the most cutting-edge and innovative developments within healthcare.

The growth of the additive manufacturing industry shows no sign of abating, with the medical and dental markets representing a significant portion of this growth. Together, they’re estimated to account for 14% of additive manufacturing equipment sales globally. In the first of this two-part series, I take a look back at some of the developments made in 3D printing in healthcare over the last 12 months and explore why the market is now ripe for further growth.

3D printing making its mark

Last year, the medical additive manufacturing market saw substantial growth in a number of areas. The most notable of these was in mass customisation, such as patient-specific surgical implants. For the first time, surgeons were able to use additive manufacturing to 3D print implants that were tailored to the individual recipient and fitted them perfectly. As the technology advances, patients will benefit from better clinical outcomes; personalised implants require fewer adjustments during surgery, therefore reducing the overall recovery period.

Commercially, last year also saw some of the main players in additive manufacturing make waves in the medical sector. For instance, one of the two major 3D printing companies for plastics, Stratasys, established its own medical solutions group - a move which shows a clear desire to be an integrated solutions provider that can handle all aspects of the 3D printing lifecycle in medicine. Likewise, the year also saw a marked increase in commercial partnerships. Most notably Materialise, a Belgium-based, medical additive manufacturing software company, partnered with multiple organizations, including Arcam, to improve their lead times and reduce their product development lifecycle costs through strong software support for all processes.

Healthcare – a market ripe for 3D printing growth

Such are the benefits of additive manufacturing that in recent years, significant investment has been allocated to this area. It is now one of the best-funded fields of medical research. To an extent, this can be attributed to the influence of the private healthcare sector. The rapid rate of innovation and consistently high levels of demand within the market have caused companies such as Siemens and Medtronics to significantly increase their R&D budgets in a bid to stay ahead of other players in the market.

Human and veterinary medicine encompasses a huge range of treatments and remedies, and there are undoubtedly many areas of the discipline in which additive manufacturing can make an impact in the future. Currently, however, there are three specific areas that we see are fostering new growth:

  • Orthopaedic devices: Joints that frequently require replacement or intense management due to overexertion such as the knee, the hip and the spine have been the subject of intensive research when it comes to additive manufacturing. It is hoped that in the future the replacement of joints with customised 3D printed artificial versions (which correspond to recipients’ exact measurements by surgeons) will become commonplace.
  • Prosthetics: Prosthetic limbs have been in production for some years now. Previous examples have taken a long time to produce, given that they are manufactured on a piece-by-piece basis. Additive manufacturing, however, allows for an entire prosthesis to be produced in one go, which can easily be fitted according to the patient’s dimensions.
  • Bio-printing: Bio-printing represents one of the most exciting developments to date when it comes to organ transplants and donations. Additive manufacturing technologies have advanced to the extent that the 3D printing of organs and tissues, which will revolutionise transplants and patient care, is not far away.

Look out for part 2 in this series to be published Monday 25 April. Where Aniruddha Srinath will explore "what’s next for additive manufacturing in the healthcare sector".

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