If you have ever watched an episode of Star Trek or a comparable sci-fi show, you have probably seen characters need a tool or an item and simply create it out of seemingly thin air. You have probably wished for the same level of technology that could make “replicating” or creating a needed tool or book possible. Well, now you can.
3D printing has hit the mainstream, with small, personal 3D printers entering consumer homes, and large-scale printers becoming commonplace in many offices. Personal design software such as Adobe Creative Cloud is even upping its support to include 3D design for printing purpose, and people can take courses to learn how.
3D printers use a type of synthetic material to follow a 3D blueprint and create a machine part, a badge, a board game piece, etc. Whatever you need, you can print it now.
Having such access to technology can bring creative endeavors to a whole new level. Imagine the 3D models or replicas one could create for art shows or modeling enthusiasts. Additionally, think of the tabletop games that people can now make custom pieces or scenes for while playing.
As you can guess, this type of technology has nearly endless applications, but none so much as in the medical world. 3D printing in the medical industry is helping to rapidly advance health innovations like never before. There are a few ways in which printing helps specifically — namely with creating surgery aids, custom-fit prosthetics, and even replacement biotissue.
Surgery Aids and Tools
Because 3D printing for medical use directly affects consumer health, the Food and Drug Administration has a lot of rules and requirements around it being used safely. Depending on how you want to use printing in your medical profession, you may need to get information from several different offices. Luckily, however, there is plenty of documentation available.
One way that 3D printing is used in the medical industry is in printing fresh, sterile tools for surgery. Some surgery tools are incredibly intricate and difficult to create out of traditional materials, making them expensive to use and create. 3D printing opens up more opportunity for creating sterile tools at a lower cost.
Printing small tools like these also make it so that there is less damage to a patient. A greater amount of specialization in a surgeon’s toolset makes it so that they can accomplish a procedure with more detail and finesse. So there is a benefit to the cost as well as the end result in producing surgical tools via 3D printing.
If you are wondering how a printer can make something sterile, it’s because the materials are kept in airtight conditions and processes can be set in place so that no one touches them until their hands are also sterilized. Additionally, some cleaning processes are being created to specifically accompany 3D printers. For example, there are now special cleaning wipes for heads and nozzles that hold up to the rigorous cleaning needed to keep a printer running smoothly.
Tens of millions of people across the globe need some form of prosthetics each year. Traditionally, this has meant either dealing with unwieldy and unsightly generic prosthetics available or spending a small fortune to get something, custom created. 3D printing has helped to change this on all fronts.
Now, it is possible to 3D print a needed prosthetic limb or assistive device that is mapped to mold specifically to a person’s body. The customization no longer spikes the cost, and in fact, 3D printing makes prosthetics more affordable for more people. Since the WHO reported a massive shortage of technicians trained in prosthetics manufacturing, 3D printing can help to make this technology more accessible to those in need as well.
Maybe most exciting and endearing is that 3D printing completely changes the game for children who need prosthetics. Instead of a metal or “flesh” colored prosthetic that may make a child feel like they stand out among their classmates in a bad way, a superhero-inspired arm brace or a prosthetic finger in bright colors is only a printing away. The accessibility of 3D printing also makes it far easier to create prosthetics that adapt and grow with the child, rather than having to completely replace traditional ones every few months depending on their growth spurts.
This is one aspect of 3D printing in the medical field that helps to treat patients but also can help them socially. While people with prosthetics may always stand out, allowing for customization to help them express them self can be huge. There are even some models who have custom prosthetics and are now respected and acknowledged in the modeling world.
Finally, it will take a different kind of printer but 3D-printing processes are advancing to such a state that it’s possible to print living tissue. This is a subset of 3D printing that is exclusive to the medical community, either for doctor-patient processes or scientific research. Either way, the ability to print living tissue is a massive opportunity for advancing healthcare.
For example, having living tissue to experiment with could help researchers looking to cure diseases or improve treatments. One such case is in the realm of cancer research. Researchers at University of British Columbia have found a way to 3D print tissue that can support healthy living cells, allowing them to more effectively study ways to understand and potentially cure cancer.
Biotissue printing can also help in replacing or helping to regenerate living tissue in people who have been severely burned or hurt. It’s possible, for example, to print a skin graft for a burn victim. Current research is also finding ways in which organs can be printed for transplants.
By printing the organs or skin grafts needed, transplants can be done at a considerably lower cost and with far less grief and stress to the patient. This process can greatly reduce the amount of time people with life-threatening conditions spend hospitalized while on a waiting list. Although, in some cases, organ donors may still always be needed, as technology can’t always solve every issue.
Regardless of how it is used, it is clear that 3D printing will help to usher in a new era of healthcare. It can help to reduce costs, increase accessibility, and overall make curing or treating maladies all that much simpler. While it may be cool to 3D print a spaceship screwdriver or replacement part like on Star Trek, saving people’s lives every day is a far more exciting use of future technologies.