Edge of Innovation

3D Printing Healthcare

Kristin Houser Writer & Editor, LA Music Blog
3d-printed hand

Innovators are showing how 3D printers can bring cost savings and customization to a growing number of healthcare needs.

Perhaps 3D printers are best known for their creative applications in fashion, design and maker spaces. Increasingly, the technology is proving beneficial to other fields like the auto industry and healthcare.

Healthcare is one of the fastest growing 3D printing industries, according to Bryan Crutchfield, vice president and general manager of North America for Materialise, a company that provides a range of software, engineering, and 3D printing services.

“The uniqueness of each patient’s condition and anatomy lend themselves to 3D-printed solutions,” he said.

“The radiologist, surgeons, clinicians, and other healthcare providers that are currently using 3D printing see tremendous value in being able to tailor healthcare treatment to each specific patient to improve their outcome.”

Also called “additive printing technology,” 3D printing allows individuals and manufacturers to develop 3D objects, layer by layer, based on digital files designed on computers.

It’s commonly used to create product prototypes and finished goods used in healthcare, electronics, consumer goods, automotive, aerospace, and other industries.

The 3D printing market is estimated to garner $8.6 billion by 2020, according to Allied Market Research.

Crutchfield has seen firsthand many applications for 3D printing and believes the possibilities for the technology are endless.

“Currently, people are printing anatomical models for visualization, education, and planning; creating patient-specific guides to help surgeons in the operating room; and designing custom implants to help give the patient a better fit,” he said.

Crutchfield pointed to a collaboration with the University of Michigan, where they are printing bioresorbable splints to help save the lives of babies suffering from tracheobronchomalacia (TBM), a life-threatening congenital airway disorder.

These splints are printed out of a biopolymer called polycaprolactone. They can be implanted around the infant’s faulty airway to prevent it from collapsing and aid in proper growth. After three years, the body simply reabsorbs the splint.

3D Printed Mobility

The GO wheelchair, dubbed “the world’s first 3D-printed consumer wheelchair,” is the brainchild of Benjamin Hubert, Design Director at strategic industrial design agency LAYER.

GO wheelchair

“Everyone we spoke to identified so many unmet needs and frustrations,” said Hubert, who asked wheelchair users about their experiences with traditional chairs. “We were compelled to find possible answers that could improve the quality of their lives.”

Before a GO wheelchair is designed, an individual’s biometric information is captured in 3D-printing software. This information allows a 3D printer to create an affordable, customized wheelchair.

Hurbert said benefits go beyond custom fit and lower cost.

“The fit is dramatically improved, reducing injury and discomfort,” he said.

He also pointed out a quicker turnaround time between ordering and delivery.

The seat of the chair is printed out of a semi-transparent resin and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) plastic, providing shock-absorption to make each ride smoother, while the foot bay is printed out of a sturdier material: titanium.

Beyond having a chair that perfectly suits their body type, customers can even make design decisions while the chair is being developed. All they need to do is enter their preferences for the chair’s optional elements, patterns, and colors via an app.

Helping Hands

People from around the world who own a 3D printer have found a way to join together and share resources to help others in need.

Online community e-NABLE, created by Jon Schull, shares open source, customizable designs for prosthetic hands and arms.

“Devices from the e-NABLE community can be built for as little as $35 in materials,” said Ivan Owen, who with wife Jen Owen created e-NABLE’s online community, which shares open source, customizable designs for prosthetic hands and arms.

3D Printing Healthcare

It has become a resource for parents of children who need prosthetics because the community makes it easy and increasingly less expensive to print new prosthetics as the child grows.

“Devices from the e-NABLE community can be built for as little as $35 in materials,” says Ivan Owen. “It’s also relatively easy to re-size the components from a given design to fit a wide range of individuals.”

In just two years, the e-NABLE network provided more than 1,500 hands and arms to those in need in more than 40 countries, and the numbers continue to grow. The network recently expanded its focus to create designs for 3D printable tools for people who have lost their hand function due to stroke, disease, or nerve damage.

“The global e-NABLE Community has the potential to make a difference in ways they may not even realize yet, through the power of collaboration and open source sharing of solutions that will be potentially life changing for some,” said Jen Owen.

A Future Full of Opportunity

Thousands of lives have already been improved through the 3D printing solutions mentioned above, but Crutchfield emphasizes that the tech is still not mainstream.

“Although medical 3D printing has been around for over 20 years, it is not widely accepted in hospitals yet,” he said. “One of the remaining challenges is getting the appropriate reimbursement codes and pathways for 3D-printed medical devices.”

Meantime, 3D printing innovators are moving forward and showing how the technology can help meet many healthcare needs.

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