Shaping Lives – The Impact of 3D Printing Within the Healthcare Industry

The medical industry is a field in which innovation and new technologies have a direct impact on improving processes, operation results and saving lives. Stratasys’ additive manufacturing technology is a key enabler to this.

Started over 25 years ago, 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – can today produce parts across a wide range of industries and applications. From fully functional medical prototypes, such as a knee braces for improved design efficiencies, to manufacturing in-flight aerospace parts, right through to high-strength automotive components that can withstand the heat and endurance of high-speeds. This demonstrates the rapid advancement of additive manufacturing technology and its materials, offering companies significant advantages across the entire design and manufacturing process.

As the healthcare industry takes larger and larger slices of the gross domestic product of countries, the question of cost will always be a factor associated with the obvious need to constantly increase innovation to improve efficiencies. In the medical field, 3D printing enables doctors to work faster, shorten patient theatre time and improve operation results.

There have been many cases where patient diagnosis and treatments have been improved by 3D printing. The constant demand to improve efficiencies drives medical device manufacturers to produce products faster, more cost-effectively, with greater customization and less intensive use of resources. Hospitals can test 3D printed medical device prototypes early in the process and feedback any required design iterations that can be made on-the-fly before final production. Subsequently, time-to-market of new medical devices is dropping significantly, meaning more patients can benefit from these new innovations faster than before.

In addition, we have seen a significant growth in the use of additive manufacturing during surgical planning and is fast-becoming an integral part of the process. Effectively performing and perfecting surgery on a 3D printed model prior to the actual procedure on the patient, not only can directly affect the amount of time patients spend on the operating table, but can also significantly success rates. For example, using a physical 3D printed model of a cranium implant, surgeons can identify the exact size and shape required to repair the affected area prior to surgery and therefore reduce any unanticipated complications, something that is restricted by a CT scan.

The journey starts with a patient

By its very nature, the healthcare industry is fast-paced and requires quick decisions to maintain patient care. Today, with increasing competition, hospitals are competing for patients. They look to market themselves as pioneers of innovation and early adopters of disruptive technologies that enable them to increase diagnosis, shorten usage of theatre time and reduce complications, while positively impacting patient care.

3D printing innovates ways to improve healthcare

Today, more and more manufacturers of medical devices enjoy significantly improved lead times using additive manufacturing technology. Users can produce multiple medical assembly tools that can be produced overnight compared to several days, or in some cases, even weeks if the tooling process is being outsourced via traditional production methods. With Stratasys additive manufacturing, users can produce manufacturing tools such as injection mold inserts. This allows a number of medical establishments to reach the early production stage for clinical trials, as well as a cost-effective way to produce expensive medical devices.

In certain cases, some of our own customers have reported dramatic lead time cuts by 95% and cost savings of up to 70%. An example of this is US design and product development company, Worrell, who accelerated its medical device development through the use of 3D printed injection molds.

Traditionally it would have taken 4-6 weeks to manufacture the tool in aluminium, but with our PolyJet 3D printing technology, Worrell dramatically slashed its lead times to two days for low-volume runs. The toughness and heat resistance of our DigitalABS material has advanced the production of 3D printed injection molds, as they are now able to withstand the rigours of an injection machine. Most significantly, this enables companies like Worrell to quickly and cost-effectively produce medical device prototype parts in the final production material.

Personalized prosthetics

As the application list continues to grow, the area of prosthetics is something that has been touched by the rapid advancement of 3D printing. The prosthetics themselves have been around for a long time, and, up until recently, were typically very rudimentary in their design and functionality. Now, advances in 3D printing have heralded a new era of inexpensive yet sophisticated prosthetics. This increased availability has seen patients ask for customized options and has led to the explosion of personalized medical aids and prosthetics.

A great example of this is at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where a number of engineering students developed a customized robotic arm for a six-year-old boy who was born without his right arm. By utilising Stratasys’ additive manufacturing technology, UCF was able to 3D print and apply design iterations quickly to find the perfect solution for the patient. Thanks to the technology’s super-fast turnaround time, the team was able to produce a personalized prosthetic prototype bespoke to the child’s body, before manufacturing the final, Ironman-inspired, robotic arm.

Surgical guides – like practising to be great at a sport

As mentioned earlier, additive manufacturing allows surgeons to reduce unexpected risks by performing the procedure on 3D printed models of the affected area prior to surgery. By converting MRI scans of the patient into a 3D printed model, hospitals can pinpoint hidden problematic areas previously only raised by x-rays.

Again, a brilliant example of this is of a two-year-old girl who was born with a severe abnormal facial condition known as frontonasal dysplasia. The abnormality caused her facial features – specifically her nose which has no cartilage, and the space between her eyes – to widen, resulting in physical disfigurement and poor vision.

By using Stratasys 3D printing technology to produce precise 3D printed models of her skull, quickly and cost-efficiently, the medical team was able to use the model to plan the exact operation and also discuss and explain the procedure to the little girl’s parents beforehand. Without a 3D printed surgical guide, the surgery would have traditionally taken around 24 hours. Thanks to the 3D printed replica, the ability to plan ahead meant that the operation was completed within 10 hours. With operating rooms costing at around 100 euros a minute, this is a prime example of the significant cost saving hospitals can enjoy by performing the surgery pre-theatre on a 3D printed model. More importantly, it reduces complications during the operation.

3D printing is not restricted to the operating table; a number of medical establishments are repurposing 3D printed models to train the next generation of doctors and surgeons on how to cope if things go wrong. For example, during kidney surgery, blood flow can only be stopped for 30 minutes, otherwise the kidney dies.

Previously, surgeons would have to cut into the patient and use a tactical feel to locate the renal artery to ensure blood supply to the healthy portions of the kidneys wasn’t cut off. Now, surgeons can use a patient scan to create a 3D printed replica model, determine where the renal artery is and avoid this scenario. In some instances, we have seen hospitals manage to remove the tumour and cut the blood supply for only 21 minutes.

As a leading manufacturer of this technology, Stratasys has a responsibility and ethos of shaping people’s lives by revolutionizing the way things are made. This is no more evident than in the world of medicine and healthcare.

Scott Rader is General Manager of Medical Solutions at Stratasys and can be reached at: