3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around since 1984. But it wasn’t until recent advances in the technology that people really began to take notice.
Today, you can purchase 3D-printed shoes, 3D-printed jewelry, 3D-printed pens, and even 3D-printed vehicles. Software gurus are assessing whether to get into the development game for 3D printers. Mattel just unveiled a 3D printer for kids called the ThingMaker.
In 2014 alone, the 3D-printing industry grew by 35.2%. And although the industry saw a slight slowdown in 2015, innovations with 3D-printed products are visible among a wide range of industries. But perhaps the most exciting advances in 3D printing can be found in the world of medicine, where 3D printing is starting to shake things up, especially as the cost of 3D printing drops and the technology becomes more accessible.
Medical technologies often are expensive when they enter the market, becoming cheaper over time, but many of the new 3D-printed solutions are coming in at a reasonable price point. This shift has the potential to disrupt the alarming trajectory of rising health care costs at exactly the moment when aging Baby Boomers will be putting more pressure on the health care system.
For example, experts have developed 3D-printed skin for burn victims and airway splints for babies with tracheobronchomalacia, which makes the tiny airways around the lungs prone to collapsing. The airway splints are especially significant since they are the first 3D implant made for kids and they’re designed to grow with the patient. The medical implant had been successfully tested in three children between the ages of three months and 16 months as of April 2015. The splints can be produced in a matter of hours, and they only cost about $10 per unit.
Part of the reason 3D-printed solutions are often cost-effective is the technology: the process involves building solid, three-dimensional objects from a digital model, using additive processes in which successive layers of material are assembled on top of one another to build the desired object. This process means that items can be assembled directly from a digital model, increasing precision and removing room for error. Moreover, it is distinct from older manufacturing techniques, which usually rely on removal (by cutting, drilling, chopping, etc.) instead of addition. These waste and extraction costs add up; 3D printing gets around those issues.
Many 3D-printed medical solutions are still in their experimental stages, but first tests are looking promising in a variety of areas.
In the research phase, scientists at Princeton University have used 3D-printing tools to create a bionic ear that can hear radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability, in a project to explore the feasibility of combining electronics with tissue.
The project was the team’s first effort to build a fully functional organ, and the ear they built not only replicated human ability, but also extended our normal human capabilities. According to an article that was published online by the researchers, “[The field of cybernetics] has the potential to generate customized replacement parts for the human body, or even create organs containing capabilities beyond what human biology ordinarily provides.” As surgeries with exterior prosthetics prove successful, possibilities like 3D-printed livers, kidneys, and lungs could become a reality, cutting through long donor lines to save lives.
There are plenty of other advances in the field of 3D bioprinting, and many of them have been a part of successful surgeries and treatments. In cancer treatment alone, 3D printing is making huge leaps forward. In 2014, researchers developed a fast, inexpensive way to make facial prostheses for patients who had undergone surgery for eye cancer, using facial scanning software and 3D printing. Just this past year, in 2015, another team of researchers found that it is possible to print patient-specific, biodegradable implants to more effectively cure bone infections and bone cancer.
But medical 3D printing is not just for the most serious medical issues. In fact, it might become a part of mainstream medical practice to treat a wide range of people. 3D-printed ankle replacements, 3D-printed casts, and 3D-printed pillshave all been developed in the past two years, with encouraging success rates. The 3D-printed cast, for example, heals bones 40–80% faster than traditional casts. 3D-printed pills allow for interesting new pill shapes that completely alter the drugs’ release rates.
As already-low manufacturing prices go down, 3D printing makes customizations more possible and, consequently, formerly impossible treatments easier.