3D printing is an additive manufacturing process which was introduced decades ago and gradually entered various professional sectors. Robotics, marine, aerospace, automotive, jewellery sectors, they all use up to a point 3D plastic or metal printing. Pharmaceutical and medical sectors where added quite recently in this long list as well.
For many years, companies, scientists and researchers were trying to understand and explore the possibility and the impact this technology can have in the medical sector and how the most advanced materials can be used for such purpose. The combination of 3D printing and CAD tools really opens new paths and allows medical design engineers to produce special medical tools and customized implants. With the implementation of parametric 3D design, an engineer can form a complex implant with unique design features suitable for a specific patient. This is where additive manufacturing can produce an advanced product unique for a patient to overcome a specific medical issue.
With respect to the implants, it is known that the human body comprises of both soft tissues and hard parts. Bones is the main example of the hard parts, and they can now be designed and manufactured by 3D printing. Shoulder, hip, spinal and cranio-maxillofacial implants are now feasible. According to Anna Aimar, Augusto Palermo, and Bernardo Innocenti in their Article the Role of 3D printing in Medical Applications (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jhe/2019/5340616/), the materials used in such applications can be acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), powder of plasters and hydroquinone. For implant developers is important that their products can mimic their customer’s bone main characteristics: stiffness and density.
3D printing contributes in orthopaedics and spinal implants
Redd Warburton, a senior executive search consultant specialising in orthopaedics and spine (https://spinalnewsinternational.com/can-3d-printing-revolutionise-spinal-implants/) explains how 3D printing contributes to spinal implants forming such complex products that traditional manufacturing would never achieve. Those implants are designed in such way with significant porosity that allows for bigger amounts of bone grafts while they open more space for the bone to grow properly. The specific surface finish that can be achieved in the microscale level allows the tissue to adhere to and grow on the implant.
Redd Warburton concludes that the combination of the surface roughness and porosity of those 3D printed implants assists dramatically the bone to grow on and around them, in a better way compared to traditional implants. 3D printed implants are already used in other medical sectors such as dental, where they are considered to be a feasible and viable solution to maintain peoples’ oral health, especially where teeth are damaged or missing. Replacement is an example where according to A New Method to Create Surgical Guides Elevates the Standards of Care (https://www.sys-uk.com/news/3d-printed-surgical-guides-and-dental-implants/)with a conventional method the adjacent teeth are very likely to get damaged, whereas dental implants can be used by clinicians to complete this operation easier without affecting other teeth.
So, what does the future in implants look like?
At the moment 3D printed implants meet the necessary requirements of the medical industry which are biocompatibility, load bearing/stress and durability. If those requirements can be added on top of the challenging geometries -quite often porous features – then surely the surgical implications will be less and patients’ post-operation lives life can be significantly improved.
There are already manufacturers that optimize their products by embedding micro sensors which can collect and send data like temperature around the implant and the strain that is been subjected to. This ‘implant performance’ can later be used by clinicians to other patients as well as manufacturers allowing them to compare real data and conclude in more realistic operation outcomes.
3D printing also progresses rapidly into the organ printing https://www.sculpteo.com/en/3d-learning-hub/applications-of-3d-printing/medical-3d-printing/ (Sculpteo). During the past couple of years a newprocess called bioprinting has really pushed the boundaries with a 3D printed lung and heart using human tissues https://www.sculpteo.com/en/3d-learning-hub/applications-of-3d-printing/medical-3d-printing/. This 3D Bioprinted Organ Just Took Its First “Breath” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0rIP_u1JPQ&feature=emb_logo
The 3D bioprinting was really a proof of concept, and it looks very promising. Soon engineers and designers will be able to print implants in a few hours and will be able to test them within weeks as others will 3D print the electronics that will work along with the implants. However, to design, engineer and produce 3D printed implants is still extremely expensive and as such it will need all the support it can get from relevant engineering and manufacturing organisations that are currently the leaders of the industry. No one knows how these technologies will develop in time. All we can say at this point is that we can certainly get a glance in the future of medicine.
If you wish to read more about the future of 3D printing technology follow the link below: A glimpse into the future of 3D printing technology