The healthcare industry has long been a beneficiary of the advancements the tech industry has witnessed since the 20th century. Due to these huge benefits, the specialized field of biotechnology was created to integrate engineers, innovators and designers into the field of medicine. These innovators also brought along with them a vital set of tools, devices and machines to help in the building of the innovative ideas they had thereby given birth to a new field that the additive manufacturing process happens to be a part of.
Placing our focus on 3D printing and its importance to health care, we will try to explore the different unique ways in which additive manufacturing is been currently employed in medicine and their roles in revolutionizing healthcare. As always, some real-world examples or case studies will be included as we paint a clearer picture of how the field of medicine will be enhanced through new printing techniques and materials.
Elevating Dentistry with the 3D Printer
A couple of years back, an orthodontic laboratory Specialty Appliance, was in search of quicker methods to develop it’s dental fixtures while reducing cost turned to 3D printing as a means of enhancing its manufacturing processes. To do this, they purchased a Stratasys 3D printer and plastic filaments which served as the base material for their dentures.
The next step for Specialty Appliance was getting the needed 3D models a 3D printer would need to manufacture dentures. And this was accomplished using the traditional process of molding to get a complete representation of a patients teeth. This, in turn, was scanned with a Computer-aided Modelling device thereby producing the 3D model. This and the needed plastic filaments was all that was needed and the laboratory 3D printed an acrylic retainer in less than 24 hours.
Accomplishing this ended up reducing the normal wait time for a new dental fixture from 3 weeks to approximately 2 weeks. The revolutionary aspect of Specialty Appliance use of 3D printing was the ability to iteratively manufacture dentures at a record-breaking speed at a reduced cost thereby making orthodontics more affordable for patients.
Simplifying the Orthotics Manufacturing Process
According to the NCBI, the use of knee braces and supporting medical devices by patients have drastically reduced to the fact that 70% of users find these contraptions too uncomfortable for regular use. Among the many complaints, the NHIS registered was the weight of these devices which made them uncomfortable appendages to the limbs. Recognizing these difficulties, the OssKin Laboratory, which focuses on providing innovative orthotics came up with a unique concept destined to reduce their weight, the material thickness and unnecessary components to ensure patients receive a measure of comfort when using these orthodox devices.
Realizing that the traditional process of CNC machining and other manufacturing processes couldn’t adequately bring this concept to life, the specialist team at OssKin turned to additive manufacturing for help. With the use of Computer-aided design tools, a working 3D model concept was designed and this served as the prototype for developing the 3 printed version of the knee brace which was tagged ‘Verge’.
With the help of a 3D printer, the Osskin team were able to develop a far lighter version than traditional knee braces while using fewer parts. This helped the team cut production coat by approximately 60% while also providing a new technique for the rapid manufacturing of the verge knee braces for mass consumption. Once again additive manufacturing provided a cheaper, quicker and more durable avenue for developing solutions for the healthcare industry.
Making Customised Pills with a 3D Printer
Another revolutionary idea the 3D printer is slowly introducing into the healthcare community, is the development of customized drugs that will take into consideration the different attributes of a patient such as; his or her weight, race, sex and age. This is due to the fact that the traditional mode of manufacturing pills was one size fits all has affected the general public’s affinity for taking pills in a negative manner.
The cumbersome traditional process for manufacturing pills focused basically on mass production of one design for it was the fastest and cheapest way to get things done while turning a profit after sales. Realizing the need to change this, Aprecia, a pharmaceutical company introduced the use of the 3D printed into its manufacturing process. Aprecia focuses on manufacturing prescription drugs for epilepsy and according to earlier feedback from patients, most sufferers find the large drugs currently available in the market for epilepsy hard to swallow thereby making patients avoid taking these pills whenever they can get away with it.
To solve this problem, Aprecia used a 3D printer and customized filament to manufacture a porous epilepsy pill—called Spiritam—which when swallowed simply disintegrates as it comes in touch with liquids—saliva or water—thereby making the drug easier to ingest and acceptable to patients. The success of this innovative way of taking oral pills convinced the FDA to approve Spiritam for public use. It is also important to note that Spiriam can be manufactured in different colors, shape and sizes thereby making it more appealing to its users.
Developing Synthetic Organs and Cells using a 3D Printer
The recent innovation in 3D printing materials has also played a role enhancing its use in medicine. The use of alginate and fibrin polymers that have the capacity to support the physical attachment of cells is set to be a boon for the healthcare industry. This is because with the use of a 3D printer, bio tech engineers can print human organs—livers, kidneys etc.—that can easily be transplanted into the human body.
Thereby eliminating the need for donor lists and the burgeoning black market trade or human organs. The success recorded by additive manufacturing in elevating healthcare has also led to the development of a specific field for its use named 3D bioprinting.