April 6, 2021 | Updated: June 21, 2022
Each person’s body is unique — 3D printing really shines in healthcare applications by enabling customized solutions. Whether it is a cast printed from a 3D scan of a child’s forearm, new tissue to repair an injury or entirely new organs manufactured with embedded vascular structure, researchers are creating new applications for 3D printing in healthcare at a lightning pace.
3D Printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of taking a computer-designed 3D model and manufacturing it into a three dimensional model by fusing material together. There are many different types of 3D printing, which use a variety of base materials: plastics, metals, even human cells. By building up the material, typically in layers, you can produce highly complex shapes and designs not possible in traditional manufacturing.
Because of the ability to individualize 3D printing in healthcare, surgeons can perform practice sessions on duplicate copies of patient’s organs to improve success rates. On the
nanoscale, doctors can perform more precisely targeted drug delivery.
How Healthcare is Using 3D Printing Globally
3D printing in healthcare is a growing subsector. Some uses have reached global application, but many are still in the research phase. 3D printing of prosthetics, for example, has enabled more affordable custom prosthetic manufacturing in lower-income communities around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reemphasized the need for open-source medical supply designs that can be shared globally and 3D printed locally. Engineers have made personal protective equipment, ventilator supplies and manual tools to help our healthcare providers stay safe and effective as they fight the spread of the disease.
How Additive Manufacturing is Helping in the Fight Against COVID-19
The Future of 3D Printing in Healthcare
Some of the research I mentioned above can transform the way we treat organ failure. I’m intrigued by the idea of using a person’s own cells to 3D print new organs to reduce rejection rates like those seen in organ transplants.
As a new technology, improving consistency and reliability in 3D printing is hugely important as it moves into life-sustaining applications. We call a misplaced blob of plastic a print failure, but that wouldn’t be acceptable on the cellular level. Ideally, to improve the consistency and in-situ quality control of the 3D printing processes, especially for custom applications would enable greater expansion into medical fields.
ABOUT OUR AUTHOR
IEEE Impact Creator Samantha Snabes is committed to significantly reducing the cost and scale barriers for industrial 3D printing. Snabes co-founded Texas-based startup re:3D in 2013 which later pioneered the world’s first affordable, human-scale, industrial filament-based 3D printer. As a serial entrepreneur, Snabes previously served as the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the NASA HQ and Deputy Strategist supporting the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Directorate.
Re:3D ambassador Charlotte Craff also contributed to the article.