What if a person with an irreversible heart ailment could order a customized heart and avoid the long, tedious wait for a donor? Imagine if people with missing limbs were provided prosthetic limbs tailored to their bodies, unlike artificial limbs that are uncomfortable to wear. And if this sounds too far-fetched, remember that 3D printing technology is rapidly evolving and these scenarios may just turn into reality in the near future!
3D printing—also called additive manufacturing—is the process of converting your digital designs into solid three-dimensional objects. It is achieved with the use of additive processes, where the product is produced by positioning successive layers of material together.
Although 3D printing technology has been widely used in areas such as automotive design, model building, and product prototyping, it is no longer restricted to manufacturing industries and has made rapid inroads into healthcare. This is validated by a new report that predicts that the world market for 3D printing in the healthcare industry will be worth USD 4043mn by 2018.
Dental laboratories have swiftly adopted 3D printing to increase scalability and precision in the manufacture of medical devices. Now, a patient’s mouth scan is analysed using 3D dental software and a unique solution is developed each time. This data is then fed to a 3D printer to build the necessary components for an implant. Today, this technology makes it possible to replace missing teeth with pinpoint accuracy and minimum discomfort. It also helps dentists create crowns in an hour’s time as opposed to two weeks using the traditional process.
The maximum application of 3D printers has been in the design and manufacture of hearing aids. According to an industry report, there are more than 10,000,000 3D printed hearing aids in circulation worldwide. With 3D printing, custom fits are no longer an issue and the manufacturing process has been shortened significantly.
Another area where 3D printing has made an indelible mark is in the fabrication of prosthetic limbs. Now, manufacturers can fabricate custom sockets that are not only soft and offer a perfect fit, but can also be made quickly and cheaply. This has been a life changer for people in conflict zones.
Another promising area, with a lot of investment and attention, is human tissue regeneration also popularly known as bioprinting. An offshoot of 3D printing, bioprinting allows scientists and researchers to build a human organ, layer by layer, with tiny building blocks composed of living cells, using scanners and printers traditionally reserved for prototyping. This can be used to fabricate tissues and organs including living heart valves, bladder, trachea, cartilage, and blood vessels. Bioprinting has tremendous potential as it allows researchers and scientists to print tissues and organs for pharmaceutical testing and ultimately for transplantation.
How else do you think 3D printing could impact and enhance healthcare? Share your views with us in the comments section below.