Impact of 3D Printing on Healthcare
3D printing has had a revolutionary impact on a variety of industries like healthcare, automotive, aviation and aerospace, Maritime, Oil & Gas, Energy, Fashion, Sports and so many others. The impact can be seen in how products are manufactured, how to influence sustainable manufacturing, offer better quality, design, and comfort with improved efficiency.
The positive impact is seen especially in the healthcare sector. From implants to bioprinting, and from medicines to research, the applications are noticeable and revolutionary. 2021 has seen 3D printing leaping in the healthcare industry and so we check out five ways 3D printing is changing healthcare in 2021.
Five Ways 3D Printing Is Changing Healthcare in 2021
1. 3D Printed Implants (800)
Medical implants are one of the most popular applications of 3D printing. Typically, medical implants are artificial substitutes of damaged body parts implanted into the body as a temporary or permanent solution. Over the years, implants are a common medical application honed by doctors across the world. With the introduction of 3D printing, the process has become even more reliable and quickly becoming the go-to process that surgeons across the world are now resorting to. According to Facts & Factors market research, the global 3D printed implants market is expected to grow to $3.8 billion in 2026 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.3%.
Though surgeons are relying on 3D printing for medical implants it is important to note that all cases are unique to each patient. Since the implant has become a part of the human anatomy, all cases must be studied and resolved on a case-to-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This means that surgeons and doctors involved have to be extra careful and attentive while dealing with 3D printed implants each time.
The implant solutions are also unique to the 3D printing process, the materials, and the machines used to manufacture the implant. All these dynamics create a healthy barrier to new entrants which reflects the slow adoption by new doctors. It is found that a limited number of doctors, who have got a grasp of the 3D printing technology, use it repeatedly instead of new doctors trying it out.
We take a look at some of the variants of medical 3D printed implants. But before we talk about the 3D printed implants let us take a journey into understanding the conventional manufactured implants.
Conventional Implants and Problems
As explained that since each individual is different, doctors have to almost always rely on custom-made implants. The material is also limited in permanent implants and due to custom shapes and sizes the manufacturing cost is pretty high. The most common process used to manufacture conventional implants is casting or traditional metal powder processing methods which again adds to the overall cost of the implant restricting its access to the common public at large.
Lastly, since the processes have a significant amount of manual intervention, the parts may sometimes not be a perfect fit for the patient leading to additional complications.
So, in short, the conventional process is messy and it not the most ideal one but it was what we had available and so doctors everywhere used it to save lives.
Types of 3D Printed Patient-Specific Implants
With the introduction of 3D printing technology, the process has somewhat been simplified, because doctors are now assisted by 3D printing professionals in understanding the printing process, the use of software, material selection, and other critical factors. This makes the doctors’ life a bit easier.
Various types of 3D printed Patient-Specific Implants (PSIs) are made from compatible materials like metals, plastics, ceramics, and bioinks. Let us see each one in detail.
Metal/Plastic/Ceramic Patient-Specific Implants
In a majority of implant cases, off-the-shelf implants cannot be used. Every patient requires a custom-made implant to experience better comfort. However, it has several drawbacks like high cost, manufacturing time, lower comfort, and longer surgery time as parts are not an ideal fit for the patient.
To avoid such drawbacks, doctors are relying on 3D-printed PSIs. They make use of biocompatible materials like Titanium, ceramic, and plastics like PEEK. These materials ensure there is no adverse effect on the body even if the printed part interacts with the body organs.
Doctors are now able to 3D print implants such as cranial craniomaxillofacial, mandible, TMJ, etc. to great perfection and deliver results superior to conventionally manufactured implants.
Tissue Implants: Bioprinting
Alongside 3D printing, bioprinting is also rapidly developing. It is the 3D printing of tissues and organs using biocompatible materials like bioinks. This is an advanced science and though it is still not completely developed it has the potential to revolutionize the entire healthcare industry. It has far-reaching implications and experts believe that 2021 is the year it will greatly boom.
3D bioprinting printers use stem cells or cells cultivated from tissue samples. These cells are held alongside a binding gel or collagen scaffold. Bioprinted body parts and organs would allow patients’ natural tissue to grow over the 3D printed parts and eventually replace the cells with their own. And while we likely won’t be seeing functioning bioprinted organs anytime soon, the technology is already helping researchers perform research on living tissues without having to accumulate them from a living organism.
To date researchers around the world have been able to produce tissues, skin, earlobes, 3D printed and working miniature heart lab settings, and much more. Bioprinting is also used to 3D print meat as in the case of alternative lab-grown meat.
3D Printed Dental Implants
The traditional method of creating dental implants involves the use of plaster where the patient is made to imprint his dental impressions which are then converted into a plaster model. This has been an effective method for a long time but it is quite tedious for both the patient and the doctor. If not done properly, it can lead to faulty and painful implants. Additionally, it requires a lot of time and multiple visits to the dentist.
3D printing alleviates most of the pain. A simple intraoral scanner can convert the internal scan into a 3D model. This is the most accurate technique to get a 3D model. This model can then be used to 3D print the entire dental structure of the patient. This model then serves as a base for designers to design an accurate and personalized dental implant for the patient. This method is not only accurate but also very quick and can be done at a relatively cheaper cost with good long-term results. It also eliminates the messy process of inserting a plaster into the patient’s mouth.
3D-printed dental implants are changing the way healthcare services are delivered to the patient via doctors.
Advantages of Patient-Specific Implants
3D printing can customize and personalize the products it manufactures. Since implants cannot completely be standardized, the ability to get them 3D printed at the time of need and in perfect shape and size is remarkable. It delivers great patient comfort as well as safeguards the patient from any tiny chance of a future infection.
One interesting advantage of a 3D printed implant is that it can be also customized in terms of weight. By implementing good topology optimization techniques, a lightweight implant can be produced.
Implants can also be built with porosity so that the tissues can be allowed to grow over the implant.
The most important advantage is that the 3D printed implant is also able to reduce surgical costs, reduce surgery time, the chances of injuries and infections in patients, and also reduce blood loss during the operation.
3D Printed implants need not be kept ready at the hospital, instead, they can be manufactured on-demand and delivered to the location within a couple of days.
2. 3D Printed Prosthetics
Prosthetics is a major booming area of 3D printing. The benefits offered by 3D printing to this sector are completely revolutionizing the market and have disrupted how prosthetics are manufactured.
Since all humans are made different and all individuals are built uniquely. So, it is very difficult to create a one-size-fits-all prosthetic. But in reality, this is what happens. Many people all over the world have to resort to a standardized version as they are mass manufactured and are cheaper. The traditionally manufactured prosthetics are built to last and thus quite heavy for some lightweight people. This becomes all the more difficult for kids as they quickly grow out of the standard size and have to regularly buy a new prosthetic as the older one falls short.
The typical process of developing a prosthesis involves multiple visits to doctors, multiple castings, and follow-up appointments to fine-tune the fitment. It is a big inconvenience in addition to creating an uncomfortable cast. In some cases, it is also observed that the frequent visits take a toll on the patient who already is sensitive to using a prosthetic. Finally, even after the arm is made, the patient has to visit to fit and re-fit the same.
3D printing brings an immense amount of simplification and sophistication to the prosthetic market. It eliminates the huge inconvenience and brings a simple streamlined process. The patient only has to visit the clinic once, where the 3D printing experts will scan the part where the prosthetic has to be fitted to create a 3D model. This model acts as the base model to design an accurate and perfect fitting prosthetic limb that doesn’t require multiple visits for fitting and re-fitting.
As it can use cheaper technology and cheaper material, prosthetics are now exponentially cheaper than the traditional ones. Moreover, they can also rapidly create customized sizes and shapes enabling everyone to have a comfortable fit. In addition to this, since kids are averse to using prosthetics, the prosthetics can be customized to incorporate features that they love. Like the well-known case of ‘The Collective Project’ where famous actor Robert Downey Jr. delivered a 3D printed prosthetic arm that was inspired by the Iron Man movie.
Such capabilities are not possible without 3D printing technology and so this is a field that is seeing a drastic and positive visible change due to the introduction of 3D printing.
3. Personalized Medication
Since the dawn of the new decade, we have entered the era of customization. This trend is seen in almost all sectors and has also impacted the medication field. Now we are seeing a growing voice for developing personalized medication as against the mass-produced drugs that are susceptible to side effects.
But it is impossible to even think of such a level of customization with the conventionally available techniques. Personalized medication is therefore directly linked to 3D printing. With the growth of 3D printing, researchers, scientists, doctors, governments, and private organizations are now focusing their efforts to build 3D printers that can print drugs according to the patient. Look at the trend in the development of 3D printing technology and simultaneously drug development in the recent past, experts believe this is the future of medicine.
Personalized medication means drugs tailor-made to suit the characteristics of every individual patient. This concept was first practically brought to the fore in 2015 by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals. They released a pill named ‘Spritam’ which subsequently received FDA approval. This pill, developed for the treatment of Epilepsy, was manufactured using powder bed fusion technology. This was the first-ever 3D-printed drug.
Over the last 6+ years, more players have joined the field and we have seen a rise in the adoption. Companies and research institutes like FabRX - Spin-off of the University College of London (UCL), National University of Singapore, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Molecular 3D Printing), ICT-Tvasta (developing multiple technologies for controlled drug release, GlaxoSmithKline (developing patient-specific dosages) and others have and are working in this field to develop 3D printed pills or technologies to assist in the same.
Currently, 3D printed pills are manufactured using popular 3D printing technologies like Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Direct Powder Extrusion – patented by FabRx (a biotech company focused on developing 3D printing technology for fabricating pharmaceuticals), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Inkjet printing.
3D printed drugs/pills are changing healthcare rapidly and they are securing a solid place in the coming future scenario. It is here to stay. However, its proliferation will depend a lot on the regulatory authorities to ensure that the drugs are standardized, its distribution is controlled by setting up processes to safeguard against black marketing or this technology leading to extreme biological warfare scenarios.
4. 3D Printed Medical Devices
The development of medical devices is a big challenge across the globe. It is an extremely resource-intensive time-taking and arduous process. It is not because the devices are unique and need a lot of product development or designing expertise, but only due to the unavailability of proper tools.
The biggest challenge is its costly product development cycle. In general, medical device product development takes a longer time than regular products. This time is extended as faster prototyping tools are not available. Traditionally available tools are just not cost-effective to build products in low-volumes.
3D printing fits into the bill perfectly here. 3D printed medical devices bring volume flexibility, customizability, rapid iterative power, and reduction in the overall product development costs. Because of this the cost and time can be drastically reduced. Moreover, it can develop high-quality products with biocompatible and sterilizable materials like titanium and PEEK. 3D printing also supports bridge manufacturing till the process is taken to mass manufacturing and so it also reduces the time to market.
We saw the real-world applicability of this potential when 3D printing manufactured products in sufficient quantities to avoid supply disruption during the global pandemic.
Considering the rigorous certification and approval process involved with the medical devices, there are bound to be some delays and 3D printing technology helps save a lot of time and cost to offset these delays.
5. 3D Printed Organs
This is a very exotic topic to discuss. It arouses deep excitement in all people and at the same time arouses concern and fear about its illegal use. 3D-printed organs are one of the frontiers of 3D printing in healthcare.
First things first, 3D printing of organs is currently not quite possible. But it is a possibility sooner than later. It is not only about 3D printing an organ but also to check its operability, its stability, sustainability, reliability, and durability over years of functioning. So, the technology today is not yet developed enough to even print a stable organ.
But the research is generating a lot of buzz and many research organizations and institutes are focusing on developing practical solutions and a lot of research is being funded in this direction. This is an eventual end goal but nobody can tell the timeline.
As recently as last year, Israeli researchers 3D printed a miniature heart model. It was a fist of its kind as it was made from human tissue. It is considered a breakthrough towards building 3D printed organs that are compatible with individual patients.
The possibility of replacing organs in the coming future is changing healthcare drastically and hopefully, it will be realized sooner than later.
Hurdles to Adoption of 3D Printing in Healthcare
The medical industry is filled with loads and loads of regulations and for obvious reasons. While it may seem a bit too much but it directly impacts the lives of people and so no matter what, the regulations have to be cleared, even for obvious products.
Since 3D printing is relatively new, the regulations are still not fully opened up to accept the technology but this is changing fast. Over the last decade, data generated through experiments, lab testing, human testing, etc., are mostly positive. And as this trend continues, more and more companies will enter the market and it will be applied in more applications.
3D printing is now seen as an alternative to many implants like orthopedic, cranial, craniomaxillofacial, etc. It is also approved to be used for surgical devices, and dental guides, and implants.
However, still, a lot needs to be done to integrate 3D printing as a standard procedure in medical surgeries. And this needs to be done on a regional and national level. It is not only about approvals from one country but has to be looked at from a worldwide body and only then the hurdle will be overcome to truly incorporate 3D printing into the medical and healthcare sector.
Strong Use Cases
3D printing is now used by a lot of surgeons as an alternative to traditionally manufactured prostheses and implants. It is seen as the ideal technology to replace the traditional ways to manufacture medical products and usher in a new era of patient-specific devices and implants. This, however, comes with its own set of limitations and drawbacks.
While 3D printing drastically reduces the time taken to manufacture an implant, the cost of making the implant and even eases the process a bit to ensure precise fitment and accuracy, it is also shrouded by some doubts. These form a big hurdle in the proliferation of technology.
3D printed implants offer the best comfort ever possible. And while the implants sure are stronger than cast parts, they are not as strong as traditionally forged parts. This is the reason, 3D-printed implants wear down faster in a lab environment. This may be the ideal situation if the implant integrates into the existing skeletal system but if that is not the case then this proves to be a critical problem that needs to be addressed. And so to allay these limitations, the technology has to grow, the material availability and compatibility have to increase vis-à-vis the affordability of the implant.
So the 3D printed implant segment has to showcase strong use cases that deliver very long-term reliability and sustainability. Till then it will not be completely acceptable.
3D printing is not a single technology but a range of different technologies that operate on the principle of additive manufacturing. This means that though some technologies are used to manufacture implants, not all are capable and even approved to 3D print implants.
In addition to approving the product (Implant, device, etc.), the governing bodies also have to clear the process used to 3D print the product. So, the entire process from the material, to the machine to the final output needs to be qualified to be used for manufacturing medical devices and implants. So, every new technology or material has to go through the qualification process, and only then can it be approved to be used. This may also vary to a certain degree to various standards followed in different countries. So, the process of validation and qualification has to be carried out again.
Unless a process is fully qualified to be used in a certain geographical area, it will not be able to 3D print medical products, no matter the process is qualified in other parts of the world.
The progress of 3D printing in the healthcare sector is witnessing rapid growth and the future looks bright. As hospitals opting for in-house 3D printing labs also called Point-of-care labs, the adoption will only grow and will help in widespread usage.