3D printing and the future of medtech

The End of Medical Care as We Know It? How 3D Printing is Revolutionizing MedTech

In Customization by trinckle team

3D printing is changing the entire medical field. Thanks to this technology the creation of truly patient-specific devices, whether a wheelchair, jaw implant, or leg prosthetic, is possible. Learn more about how the benefits of additive manufacturing are revolutionizing this sector.

There was an accident. The results of which required the amputation of your right leg below the knee. Thankfully, you will not walk around on crutches forever, what is most important now is getting a prosthetic that fits, that is actually made just for you.

When people hear the word customization, they most often think of personalizing their shoes, or jewelry, maybe their bike. But when it comes to medical technology, customization does a lot more than cater to taste. Creating tailor-made medical devices is a matter of necessity. Whether prosthetics, dental implants, or a wheel chair, if a medical device does not fit perfectly, then it is basically useless. It often seems like medicine was just waiting for 3D printing to come along. The ideal tool for creating customized devices, 3D printing also brings a host of other advantages that ultimately improve the patient experience.

Standard solutions, for individual problems?

The advent of 3D printing makes the production of small batches possible in previously unseen ways. You can produce 1000 identical items or 1000 individual ones, to a printer it is all the same. For medical devices this could mean the end of standard models, which often fail to address the particular needs of each patient. Instead devices could be individually manufactured for the intended user. A project started by design company, Layer, took this idea as its starting point, and set out to use 3D printing to create bespoke wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs, while making mobility possible for so many, are also associated with a series of ailments resulting from ill fit: skin ulcers, clotting, and posture misalignment. A “made-to-measure 3D-printed wheelchair” could change all that. GO is a fully customized wheelchair, tailored to the lifestyle and needs of each user. Its optimal fit considers a number of factors: body shape, height, weight, and the specific disability. GO’s designers also made sure to include some customizable aesthetic elements. Not only does Go use 3D printing to improve comfort and functionality, but also to make an expression of personal taste possible.

Although GO is only a conceptual project, it represents a fundamental shift in creating medical devices, like wheelchairs. Rather than stockpile parts of several standard models, each user gets exactly what they need.

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Lowering costs, improving accessibility

As 3D printing technology improves, production costs for many goods fall. Lower costs are great in every sector, and in the case of medtech they have the added benefit of improving accessibility to essential medical devices. Worldwide approximately 40 million people live with limb loss. And although the functionality and comfort of prosthetics have drastically improved in recent years, they remain unaffordable for many. Countless initiatives and companies have begun using 3D printing in the production of prosthetics to create custom devices that are far more affordable.

Nia Technologies, a non-profit organization, has been running a program that uses 3D printing, scanning, and modelling technology to bring prosthetics to children and young people in low-income countries. A central focus of this project is to develop tools that will make the work of prosthetists simpler, thereby getting people their prosthetics faster. For example, the software used by participating clinicians enables them to share models with colleagues to get input on the design. Measured in dollars the benefit is clear, more efficient design processes result in lower design costs, which means more affordable prosthetics. But, more than this using 3D printing to create prosthetic devices is changing the culture of healthcare, and it is a big deal.

The initiative e-NABLE embodies this shift perfectly. Started in 2011 e-NABLE has grown into a network of designers, printers, and users who work together to create prosthetics that cost next to nothing. Their work has provided thousands of people, who otherwise would have gone without, with devices that allow them to carry out everyday tasks. An open source community, the original design of the device has been modified and improved, and there are now countless iterations each designed for a specific person or context. e-NABLE’s work represents in essence the democratization of healthcare. Now regular people are making “prosthetic hands and fingers for children all over the world, with the use of 3D printing” (Ultimaker).

More to come

The possible medical applications of 3D printing technology are innumerable. Some, like prosthetics, already enjoy widespread use. Others, like 3D printed tissues, may take a bit longer before they become viable options. Of course many questions remain open: what kind of standards does this new branch of medtech need? What will the FDA approval process look like? How will we manage extremely sensitive information that allows the printing of tissue or organs? In spite of these questions, the amazing positive potential gives reason to be optimistic.

3D printing makes true patient-specific care more possible than ever, and could very well change the patient-clinician dynamic, to something less passive and more collaborative. Of course 3D printing alone cannot create this shift, but in combination with other technologies it will. That is where software, like our paramate platform, come in. paramate automates the transformation of individual scan data into custom devices, and makes the more efficient integration of custom and standard components possible.

Regardless of the particular application, whether implants or prosthetics, when it comes to 3D printing in medtech it is safe to say, there is way more to come.

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“Image 1” courtesy of Layer Design.

“Image 2” courtesy of e-NABLE.