Knowledge Base

3D Printing in Healthcare

Medical science is one of oldest science in the world. Since time immemorial, people have needed medical care, and the science of medicine has been instrumental in keeping human beings alive through the ages. The valiant fight doctors and healthcare providers are waging against the latest Covid 19 pandemic is testimonial to their dedication.According to a survey, the healthcare 3D printing market will reach about Rs. 4400 cr. ($ 6.0 billion) by 2027, which is a staggering figure by any standards. Before we discuss the growing popularity of 3D printing in the healthcare field, let us first understand in brief what 3D printing technology is all about.

What is 3D Printing?
Also called aadditive manufacturing, 3D printing is a manufacturing process in which material is added in a layer-by-layer fashion to directly produce a three-dimensional object. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is used for rapid prototyping in India, Singapore and other countries. Rapid prototyping is very popular in many industries; especially the manufacturing industry, where it is used to create a system or part representation quickly before final release or commercialization. Additive manufacturing / 3D printing works by adding material in layers; each layer being a thin cross-section of the part derived from the original CAD data. Logically, the thinner the layer, the more accurate is the prototype. Good quality 3D printing software and 3D printers – like those from market leader Stratasys – also play a crucial role in producing accurate and faster prototypes. One advantage of additive manufacturing is that regardless of the complexity of parts to be built, building within an AM machine is generally performed in a single step. Today, there exist many different technologies for 3D printing that includesStereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and others. As innovations in 3D printing are on the rise, the cost of good printers is coming down as well.

3D Printing in Healthcare
While 3D printing is used routinely nowadays to manufacture everything from masks for Covid 19 protection to automotive components, it has special importance in the healthcare field. One of the most important features of 3D printing technology is ease of customization, and the healthcare industry realized its significance early on. Dentists and surgeons have leveraged this power of 3D printing to provide personalized service to their patients. Indeed, customization is one of the most important advantage that 3D printing offers in the healthcare sector.

3D Printing of Implants
Medical implants are devices or tissues that are placed inside or on the surface of the body to replace missing joints, bones or even teeth. Those implants that are intended to replace missing body parts are called prosthetics. Other implants deliver medication, monitor body functions, or provide support to organs and tissues. Depending upon the need and availability, implants are made from skin, bone or other body tissues. If it is not feasible to use human tissue, surgeons turn to implants made from other material like metal, plastic, ceramic or other materials. However, these materials are not a natural choice for organs. Advancesin 3D printing for implants now make it possible to use more natural feeling material like medical grade silicones and elastomers, making patients feel more comfortable with the implants.    

3D Printing of Artificial Limbs
In India, Singapore and indeed all over the world, there are patients who need joint or limb replacement. These artificial limbs (called prosthetics)play a crucial role in rehabilitative healthcare and in helping the patient recover from the trauma of a lost limb. 3D printing has proved to be a boon for such people, as it is now possible to make a custom limb that fits them perfectly, and is very comfortable to operate.Such printed implants and even organs perfectly match the patient’s damaged tissue. And with advanced 3D printing, they can also have engineered material microstructures and cell arrangements which promote cell growth and can eventually solve the organ donor shortage problem.

3D Printing of Joints
Joints are one of the most important body parts. Joints are what enable humans to walk, pick up objects and in general be flexible. Unfortunately, joints may lose their mobility due to old age,arthritis, or due to an accident. Earlier, the only choice for the patient was to use standard sized artificial joints. They ware traditionally made with a variety of plastics and metals, material that had a tendency to break down after 10 – 12 years. But recent progress in 3D printing now enables doctors to tailor-print a joint, one that will fit perfectly and be more nimble. Innovations in the raw material for 3D printing now enable manufacturers to fabricate joints that are more natural and supple. Importantly, they can last a lifetime, making second replacement surgery redundant.

3D Printing of Dental Implants
Yet another way in which 3D printing is improving healthcare is in the field of dental implants. Dental implants are now a common treatment for loss of teeth for any reason. 3D printing allows custom creation of not only dental implants from CAD drawings, but also crowns and veneers. Again, the top advantage of 3D printing is that the implant is custom made, making it more comfortable for the patient. Several 3D printer manufacturers, like market leader Stratasys offer specialized specialized 3D printers (like the J720 and J700) as well raw materials as part of their dental 3D printing solutions. They are available in India, Singapore and other countries through their authorized distributors.

3D Printing for Surgical Planning
The human anatomy is intricate and there can be a wide variation in the pathological anatomy. Pre 3D printing era, surgeons had to learn by observing live operations and then trying them out themselves under the guidance of a senior. 3D printing has now improved the accuracy of pre-surgical planning. It is possible to replicate a 3D organ using 3D volume image data of the patient’s computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or echocardiography, and surgeons can practice on this organ. This pre-surgery training proves of immense use to surgeons especially in complex surgeries, like that of the heart. In case of implant bending, it also improves the precision and placement. 3D printing thus saves time and allows surgeons to make critical decisions even before entering the operating room.

Advantages of 3D Printing in Healthcare
There are two distinct advantages that 3D printing offers healthcare professionals. The first, and probably the most important advantage is that all the body components can be custom printed. This is a very important consideration, and something which was not possible using traditional means of manufacturing. The second most important advantage is the advancement in the raw material that is available for replacing body parts. The earlier choice of raw material was restricted to few plastics or metals, both of which are alien to the human body. However, the choice of raw material available for 3D printing now is tremendous, and these materials can last a lifetime. Continuous refinements and experimentation in the availability of raw material is only going to make the replacement parts look and feel more and more natural. Bioprinting, another nascent field in healthcare, promises to make 3D printing take one more step closer to natural body parts.

Penetration of 3D printing for healthcare is still low, especially in countries like India. There are two reasons for this. One is the awareness of the capabilities of 3D printing among the medical profession and two, the cost of 3D printers. Ultimately, the patient needs to pay for the body parts that are 3D printed, and in countries like India where the GDP is low, this can prove to be a deterrent. However, as healthcare professionals and patients realize the comfort, convenience and suitability of 3D printed body parts, and the cost of 3D printers and 3D printing material comes down to increasing volumes, it can be safe to predict that 3D printing is the way forward in healthcare.