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Vol 20, No. 05, May 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
3D Printing: The Versatile Innovation at the Healthcare Forefront

Additive Manufacturing (AM), more popularly known as 3D printing, was first developed for designers and engineers in 1984 [1] to assemble an object from a virtual design by adding layer by layer of various material like bioplastic tubes until the desired result is complete. This process is done by forging, moulding and sculpting commonly used in simple to complex machineries such as planes and cars. The model is first conceptualised via a computer-aided design (CAD) and saved as data, which the designer may still manipulate, edit and customise, before being fed into an ink-based or laser-based printer. [2]

Given that the technology has the ability to produce any scaled structure, it has branched out to many other industries, i.e. apparel, construction and robotics. [3] Interestingly enough, you can now also 3D-print food! Since it aims to be appetising, 3D printing food uses edible and fresh ingredients in stainless steel capsules in order to create intricate designs on pastries, confectionaries and more. In Germany, some nursing homes have opted to serve 3D printed food for the elderly who are unable to chew their food well. [4]

In regenerative medicine, scientists have tried to facilitate this innovative tool using the patient’s cells to 3D-print small body parts like noses and ears. 3D bioprinting systems deposit bioink,” which is comprised of living cells or biomaterials, to reproduce human tissues or organs. [5] This has changed the hearing aid manufacturing dramatically as everyone’s ear canal is shaped differently. 3D printing has allowed custom-fit devices, therefore making them more efficient and suitable for the wearer. [6]

Another breakthrough is that heart surgeons turn to 3D-printing to make a prototype of the patient’s heart for surgical planning. A customised 3D prototype would be helpful as the cardiologist designs a surgical procedure catering to the patient’s needs. [7] This can result to reduction of operating time and risks of complications or errors. The surgeon can use the prototype as a visual aid to explain the various processes to the patient and the family members before undergoing surgery.

Another exciting and practical use of 3D-printing is in the provision of prosthetic limbs. Transradial (below the elbow) and hand prosthetics may cost up to $10,000 to $20,000 per device. [8] As it is also economical both in time and material, a prosthetic limb can be produced between a few hours to a day and could cost as little as $1,000. For the cases of children, some born partly with no hand/s or leg/s, could grow out of their prosthetics rapidly. 3D printing may just be the more accessible and affordable answer in order for them to have functional and customised limbs, which allow them to perform everyday tasks with more ease and lead normal lives.

The non-profit organization e-Nable is a group of volunteers who designs and provides modified and personalised prosthetic hands, especially to children in need. They have launched pro-bono ventures like The Open Hand Project, which aims to provide robotic upper limbs to amputees. [9] e-Nable’s famous designs are hands likened after the Avengers’ superheroes and have become quite a hit with the kids. If you are interested in building a hand or lending a hand, kindly visit https://enablingthefuture.org/ for more details on how you can help. [10]

While 3D printing is becoming rampant and is being considered an effective alternative, its healthcare applications are still emerging and developing. The medical industry is anticipating the bioprinting of more complex organs, especially for implants and revolutionary treatments. [11] As we continue to witness its continuing evolvement, no one can deny its positive implications and the beneficial impact it has already contributed across the board, especially in medicine.

by APBN writer, Catherine Domingo Ong
Catherine is a writer whose guilty pleasure is lounging in a peaceful location with a good book (or several) and a latte at hand.



1) 3D Printing Is Already Changing Health Care by Drew Hendricks, https://hbr.org/2016/03/3d-printing-is-already-changing-health-care

2) What is 3D Printing and How Does it Work? https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLe7Y9INnolcfl8QEUdD7Maz3C2qgMcCju&v=Vx0Z6LplaMU

3) 3D Printing for the Medical Industry, https://www.sculpteo.com/blog/2015/10/22/3d-printing-for-the-medical-industry/

4) Why 3D food printing is more than just a novelty — it’s the future of food, https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/3d-food-printers-how-they-could-change-what-you-eat/#ixzz469nLZ4E4

5) Ozbolat IT and Yu Y., Bioprinting toward organ fabrication: challenges and future trends. IEEE Trans Biomed Eng. 2013;60(3):691–699.

6) Banks J., Adding value in additive manufacturing: Researchers in the United Kingdom and Europe look to 3D printing for customization. IEEE Pulse. 2013;4(6):22–26.

7) 3D Printing: The Cutting Edge of Healthcare, https://formlabs.com/stories/3D-printing-healthcare/

8) Surgeon's Helper: 3D Printing Is Revolutionizing Health Care (Op-Ed), https://www.livescience.com/49913-3d-printing-revolutionizing-health-care.shtml

9) The Open Hand Project, https://www.openhandproject.org/

10) e-NABLE, https://enablingthefuture.org/

11) Medical Applications for 3D Printing: Current and Projected Uses, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4189697/

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