Medical 3D printing: 3 ideas for innovative health projects !

Lucie Arboy-Klein, February 2021

3D printing has been experiencing a growing interest in recent years, both in the industrial and medical fields. It is no longer reserved only for prototyping or for certain specific sectors of activity. From now on, additive manufacturing has become a means of manufacturing almost like any other, whose major advantages such as faster, local and customizable production allow a simpler but also wider access to innovation. 
The use of 3D printing is becoming more and more popular and this is only the beginning. So how can it be integrated into the medical sector and for what applications?  

3D printing can be integrated into a personalized care path for the patient, encourage innovation on the medical staff side and be part of a project development process for a healthcare institution.

In this article, we propose you to :

  • Review the concept of 3D printing
  • Discover the different uses of medical 3D printing, in a non-exhaustive way
  • Understand the points of attention for the implementation of this type of approach

3D printing, what is behind?

3D printing is a technology that exists since the 80’s and that is becoming more and more democratized and better and better mastered.
When we talk about 3D printing we also talk about additive manufacturing. This means that the parts will be manufactured by adding successive layers of materials through the control of a computer.
Contrary to conventional manufacturing, this process is interesting because it not only frees you from the need to have a specific mold or tooling (if not a 3D printer), but it also allows for greater flexibility and speed in the production of customized parts, greater strength at a reduced cost. Above all, 3D printing offers an almost infinite range of possibilities!

And this is undoubtedly why the number of patents filed each year on this technology is increasing sharply (27% each year). In fact, it has been selected as one of the 10 most important categories in terms of growth over the last 5 years by the IFI Claims Patent Services organization.

These great advantages and its democratization explain why additive manufacturing is particularly suited to the needs of the healthcare sector: adaptability to specific patient needs, fast and local manufacturing, etc…
Surgeons and doctors have understood this because they have been integrating it into their practice for several years. And all specialties are concerned.

So, in concrete terms, what are the possible applications in the medical field ?

We are obviously thinking of prostheses and orthoses printed in 3D, for example. But other uses exist and we now offer you a small overview of 3 types of applications. These are just a few examples to inspire you, and dozens of others are to be listed.

#1 – Simulators to improve medical staff training

One of the first applications we can talk about are surgical simulators. Printed in 3D, they are used as a training aid for surgeons and surgical interns. Thanks to advanced technologies, the expertise of engineers and the advice of expert surgeons, it is now possible to reproduce different parts of the human body on which learners can practice performing various surgical procedures. Multi-material 3D printing makes it possible to reproduce soft and hard tissues in a single print to achieve an anatomical precision that is difficult to achieve with assembly manufacturing processes. The simulators therefore offer a unique anatomical realism.

It is a major contribution to the training of the various practitioners, allowing them to develop their practice. They can all be trained at the same time and have the same sensations that they will encounter during their first operations. This is one of the strong points of medical 3D printing, particularly in the face of other technological innovations such as augmented reality which, while it allows for greater precision, does not offer the feel or resistance of a real operation.

The design and 3D printing of surgical simulators allow the reproduction of pathologies while avoiding the use of animals or cadavers. Indeed, these solutions are expensive and require special logistics: they must be available and training must be carried out in dedicated locations. Moreover, with surgical simulators, ethical issues when using cadavers are no longer relevant.

Last but not least, it is quite possible to reproduce certain pathologies via 3D printing, pathologies that are not necessarily found on the cadavers used for training. Simulation models in 3D printing make it possible to get rid of these heavy constraints: one table, one simulator and it’s enough…
3D printing is also an excellent way to reproduce the anatomy of a specific patient to improve preparation for complex surgery!

The simulators are intended for all medical specialties: oral surgery, ear surgery, neurosurgery. We can cite various examples:

There are oral surgery simulators for maxillofacial surgeons to enable them to reproduce implant placements with all the components of the jaw. There are also simulators for chiropodists.
Finally, to join a recent news, for PCR tests, there are anatomical models that allow first-aid workers, nurses, medical students, pharmacists or laboratory technicians to practice rhino-pharyngeal sampling.

#2 – Medical devices to provide specific patient care

If there are obviously regulatory constraints to respect for the realization and the use of this type of products, it is quite possible to design and produce them on 3D printers.
This is part of a long-term approach of innovation, product development and sometimes even patent registration.
This use is not the most widespread, but it is likely that it will take more and more space and will make “customizable” products accessible to everyone simply at very reasonable prices.
It is a first-choice solution in the context of the patient’s care pathway, which we want to be increasingly personalized and adapted. Thus it is possible, thanks to additive manufacturing, to create a unique piece for a single dedicated patient.

On the medical staff’ side, it is obviously also an interesting research and innovation lever with the possibility of co-designing projects with specialized design offices.

If several projects exist or are in the process of being validated, we can cite as an example of a medical device designed via 3D printing, a model of a silicone narrow-neck shaper used to follow rhinoplasty and cleft lip and palate surgery to allow better control of the scar area. The advantage of additive manufacturing in this case includes the near-customization of the DM to fit the patient’s size.

#3 – Small medical equipment for everyday life and hospital staff

Beyond surgical simulators or medical devices, it is also possible to consider any other type of medical equipment. And thus meet the daily and immediate needs of the nursing staff. These are often small-sized devices produced in small quantities (sometimes even individually) that would not necessarily be easily or cheaply accessible, such as protective visors, for example.
The covid crisis has revealed a strong interest in this type of solution with the emergency 3D printing of protective equipment for example, which does not require the administrative burden of the DMs.
Also within healthcare institutions, medical 3D printing can be used to meet all the everyday needs of general services: repairing broken door handles or manufacturing small parts to improve the repairability of hospital equipment. Temporary do-it-yourself solutions by biomedical engineers are avoided and hospital managers and purchasing departments save money.

A 3D printing platform in healthcare facilities, good or bad idea

These 3 applications show part of the extent of what can be done with additive manufacturing in health care. So obviously, the desire can be great to invest in a 3D printer today and equip your establishment or practice.

There is, however, one essential element that is important to keep in mind: not everyone who wants to use a 3D printer is a 3D printer user. Specific engineering skills are required to take full advantage of these tools for medical use.

Good news ! For several years engineers have been training in the use of these tools. By combining the high technology of the printers with the cutting-edge expertise of the teams of design office engineers, it is entirely possible to create quality and useful medical equipment, which will not only offer patients an improved care pathway but also provide doctors with cutting-edge innovations and hospital staff with immediate answers to small everyday needs.

Using this type of innovation is an essential step for a healthcare establishment that wishes to develop its research elements but also to reduce its costs and add value to its projects.

My advice: although 3D printing allows a lot of things to be done, the easiest way to see your projects become reality is to be accompanied by a design office such as Bone 3D, for example, which will be able to propose the most appropriate solution.
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And don’t hesitate to exchange with your peers, to share your ideas, because it is only with communication between medical staff workers that these initiatives can grow and become a complementary and sustainable solution.

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