3D printing as a concept is one that I find totally mind blowing. The fact that technology can transport information from a data fie to a physical structure, that can be touched and felt, is fascinating to me. Surely this ease of interaction between a concept and the physical product can only be a spring board for innovation and have wide reaching applications across research and design for a variety of industries?
The medical device industry is one which is rapidly benefiting from this approach. From reducing the time taken from design to commercialisation, thus reducing costs, to allowing smaller enterprises to compete in the market in the absence of large scale manufacturing abilities. The main benefit though, is the ability to produce custom fit devices on an individual scale – allowing increased efficiency and better patient outcomes, without the increased manufacturing costs.
3D printers are split into two categories; industrial and desktop. The distinction is obvious and as you may expect so is the difference in price. Whilst larger conglomerates opt for those on an industrial scale, the market for desktops is rapidly improving in terms of ability and reliability and due to volume, becoming cheaper in contrast. With the ability to include different materials within the same print the results are truly extraordinary and being utilised across a number of therapeutic areas. Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) the digital information allows the printer to construct the print in successive layers of the material(s) being utilised.
Researchers from New North-western University, in the United States, printed an ovary from Gelatin, which when implanted into a mouse successfully carried a litter to full term. The body of the mouse was unable to tell the difference and as with a “normal” pregnancy, released all of the usual hormones – including those that prompt the production of milk for the young.
Further successful implants have been achieved worldwide. One article I found discussed the lifesaving surgery conducted in India, whereby three bioengineered vertebrae where used to replace those ravaged by disease in one patient. As these were cervical vertebrae, the patient effectively lacked the ability to support the weight of her own skull and the resulting curvature of her back was having a serious impact and causing a substantial threat, to the integrity of her spinal cord and also the nerves regulating her respiratory system. The ultimate prognosis was paralysis and potentially even death. The article reports that within a fortnight of the implant the patient was able to walk largely unaided and went on to make a full recovery.
Unsurprisingly this form of custom manufacture, has many applications within the field of prosthetics and orthotics and significant reductions in cost and time have been reported with this process; producing prosthetics that are body powered and light weight. With the World Health Organisation reporting that approximately 30 million people, from poorer countries, require prosthetics limbs and 3D printing can make massive inroads into this, as a portable and reduced cost alternative.
It does seems that the possibilities for the future are massive and game changing. Drug delivery devices are being produced, with one company marketing a selective dose inhaler for medical marijuana and bionic skin being developed to cover robotic arms under operation by surgeons, to enable them to “feel” during intricate procedures that they are conducting remotely. Stretchable biosensors are printed onto the outside layers and the sensitivity reported is impressive. Printing onto human skin seems to be the next step and the success with mice ovaries gives real hope that functioning printed human organs are closer to reality than science fiction.
The future for 3D printing seems bright and not just for the medical device industry. In China 3D printed concrete houses have been erected and this approach seems to be successful and attractive, when speed and reduced cost are more of a priority than architectural aesthetic.
3D printing has also been utilised within the biometric field, by way of a very unusual request. Last year, in the United States, a replica of a deceased’s man’s finger was created via 3D printing. The request came from the police as the deceased man was a murder victim and his mobile phone was protected by a fingerprint scanner rather than a password/code. Due to the advances in technology and the increased need to protect personal information contained within such devices – the scanner was able to detect the lack of electrical activity from the man’s finger, after death, and failed to activate the phone. The replica – which was coated in an incredibly fine layer of gold to simulate the electrical conductivity that a live human finger would generate, allowed the police to access the phone. The necessary warrant process still had to be completed in order to achieve this end result, but with 3D printing the police were able to bypass the normal rig moral with the phone manufacturer. When you consider that the FBI spent over $1.4 million dollars hacking into a suspect’s phone after the much publicised issue with Apple – the application for criminal investigation services are also huge.
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Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.