What are the medical applications for 3D printing?
The medical sector can benefit greatly from medical 3D printing. This technology is suited for various medical applications: from 3D bioprinting, to custom made casts and tailored prosthetics or orthotics.
Bioprinting opens the door to on-demand human organs creation, including bones, cartilage, and skin. With 3D printing, it could be soon possible to produce replacement organs or limbs.
Medical 3D printing is also being tested for the production of personalized casts, made of light plastic and fitting perfectly the patient.
Finally, 3D printing is used to create customized prosthetics and orthotics. 3D printing brings down dramatically the production costs of such medical devices and make them affordable for the masses.
3D bioprinting is a contraction of “biological printing”. It is a new and promising medical technique that involves the 3D printing of biological tissues using a 3D bioprinter. The potential applications can range from creating replacement organs to fabricating human tissues or specific prosthetics.
However, this medical 3D printing technology is in infancy stage, and it’s still a long way before we can 3D print a fully functional replacement organ or limb. For now, bioprinting is mostly used in medical and biological labs to create samples of biological tissues used in drug testings and experimentations.
3D printed prosthetics and orthotics
A simple disambiguation between two terms is that orthotics assist a deficient function of the body, while prosthetics replace a missing body part. Prosthetics and orthotics are a great fit for 3D printing because they are mostly made of plastics and they require to be highly customized to fit perfectly the patient. With 3D printing, it is now possible to build affordable 3D printed prosthetics, a small revolution in the medical industry.
A few example of initiatives to promote 3D printed prosthetics: Open Bionics is a project which aims to create low-cost robotic hands for amputees, researchers and hobbyists all across the world. This Wired article also describes the design process of the Exo prosthetic leg, a 3D printed leg prosthetic.
3D printed casts
3D printing, a cost-effective technique to produce custom objects, is a great option for the creation of medical casts.
In 2013, Jake Evill, a UK designer, produced the first 3D printed cast, called the Cortex exoskeletal. The cortex cast is based on the X-ray and 3D scan of a patient, used to generate a 3D model of a customized cast. This cast provides a highly localized support system on the trauma zone. The 3D printed cast is also ventilated, very light, hygienic, and recyclable. It can even be used in the shower!
In 2014, Deniz Karasahin, a Turkish student, created the Osteoid: a 3D printed cast which incorporates ultrasonic technology to accelerate the bone healing process. Combining a 3D printed cast with low-intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS), the Osteoid is like an enhanced cast designed to fasten the healing process.
The Cortex exoskeletal cast: a 3D printed cast designed by Jake Evill.