The Impact of 3D Printing on the Medical Device Industry

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In January of 2017, Dr. Julielynn Wong, founder of 3D4MD, used Made In Space‘s Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) aboard the International Space Station to 3D print a finger splint for the treatment of mallet finger, an injury that commonly afflicts astronauts. It was an historic moment – the first time medical supplies had ever been 3D printed in outer space. Back on Earth, the medical industry was becoming more and more familiar with 3D printing as a way to create medical devices, supplies, surgical models, and more. Some might already have called the technology out-of-this-world, but now it had literally left the planet entirely.

3D4MD specializes in the creation of medical supplies using 3D printing on-site in remote areas. It doesn’t get much more remote than outer space, but there are plenty of locations on Earth that don’t have access to quality healthcare. Those locations are 3D4MD’s targets. Dr. Wong developed a solar-powered, mobile 3D printer that can be transported in a carry-on suitcase, so that it can be taken anywhere in the world and set up even in the most off-the-grid areas. In these areas, the 3D4MD team sets up a 3D printer and creates splints, medical models, assistive devices, and surgical tools wherever they’re needed.

3D4MD’s work is only one example of how 3D printing is changing the medical device industry. The benefits that 3D printing brings to remote areas are obvious – a solar-powered machine can be set up anywhere, without access to electricity, and used to instantly produce supplies that otherwise would have to be ordered from halfway across the world, requiring time and money that many of the people in these areas don’t have. It’s extremely cheap to produce a plastic splint with a 3D printer. But it’s not just remote areas that are benefiting from the technology.

Not long ago, scoliosis braces were bulky, uncomfortable, and highly visible, and creating them was no picnic either, requiring plaster casts. But 3D printing has changed that, enabling the creation of lightweight, comfortable braces that fit snugly and can be created with no more than a quick scan of the body. Recently, WASPmedical inaugurated its Digital Orthopedic Laboratory, a lab equipped with a custom body scanner and two large-scale 3D printers for the creation of orthopaedic devices such as braces and splints.

One of the keys to the importance of 3D printed medical devices is how easy it is to create patient-specific treatments and to do it inexpensively and with a minimum of discomfort for the patient. 3D Systems has been working with patient-specific implants for some time, 3D printing them for client companies such as K2M and EIT.  In the past, implants were made only in a few different sizes, and frequently would not fit the patient perfectly, resulting in further pain, complications, and often revision surgery. 3D printing, however, is enabling medical professionals to create implants in the exact size and shape of the patient’s anatomy, meaning that surgeries are quicker and there’s less of a risk of complications or need for further surgery in the future.

Katie Weimer, Vice President of Medical Devices for 3D Systems, has been working with 3D printing and medicine for the majority of her career. She is an expert in the field of 3D printed medical devices, and sees patient-specific metal implants as a major factor driving the industry forward.