While the 3D printing is expected to reach an astonishing $40 billion by 2027, what’s more impressive than the dollars involved is the huge impact the technology is already having on people’s lives.
It’s not just about the coolness factor of car parts, smartphone cases, fashion accessories and the like that have been printed instead of pounded or extruded in metal or plastic. Or about the flip side, like the worrisome capabilities to produce a 3D printed gun.
What makes this an industry that’s worth being involved in (and excites me more each day) is the technology’s promise to actually change people’s lives – if not save them – as it makes one exciting advance after another in medicine.
Here are three to inspire you:
3D printed prosthetics
Prosthetics is an area where 3D printing saw many of its early advances, with prosthetics being designed that go way beyond human arms and legs.
In 2012, for example, an elderly woman in The Netherlands had her lower jaw, which had been removed due to a severe infection, replaced with a 3D printed model. The printer used powdered titanium through the laser melting process to make the prosthetic. It only took a day for the woman to be able to speak and swallow after the surgery. In another instance, a duck named Buttercup, born with one of its feet backwards, had it replaced by a new 3D printed one. It was printed out of silicon, and a silicon sock was also printed as the means to attach it.
3D printed bones
3D printing technology is also able to make structures that are similar to bones. They are implantable, and a special coating helps the body absorb them. These 3D bones help heal injuries as well as deformities.
One of the noteworthy aspects of this particular application in medicine is how 3D-printed materials can be molded for individuals. Typical implants can’t be customized in the same way. This use of 3D technology continues to evolve. The challenge is to achieve scale without sacrificing the ability to customize the bones to individual needs.
3D printed living organs
One of the most exciting breakthroughs in medicine’s advances with 3d printing is the creation of custom organs that overcome all the issues with today’s transplants, where the need far outstrips supply. Call it 3D bioprinting.
Researchers at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have made significant strides with 3D printed organs. Instead of using the typical plastic or metal material, the what’s printed are gels filled with the patient’s own cells and a biodegradable material to hold the shape. The structure also features channels similar to capillaries which take in nutrients and oxygen when the tissue’s implanted, ensuring it stays alive.
The Wake Forest team has 3-D-printed such body parts as a human ear, jawbone and muscle tissue. All of them not only survived after being implanted in lab animals, but grew functional nerve and cell systems even as they grew in size.
With 3D printing technology, researchers are hopeful they can expand their reach, using bioprinting to automate the process and scale up, helping many more patients than has ever been possible in the past.