Additive manufacturing has made a splash across plenty of industries in recent years. As one of the new kids on the block, it has changed the way that many companies conduct their prototyping and production methods.
Back in September 2017, I attended the TCT Show at Birmingham NEC - an event dedicated to suppliers and purchasers of additive manufacturing and 3D printing services. Whilst I was there, I saw for myself how these once-enigmatic processes had gathered in momentum, with the scope of supply now including the likes of textiles and ‘fabrics’ that had been printed entirely in one piece. I also made an interesting observation when it came to the seminars on offer - almost all of them were geared towards the advancements that additive manufacturing has made possible within the medical sphere.
Coincidence? Not at all. Perhaps more than most, the medical industry has embraced additive manufacturing as the future of their field.
What makes additive manufacturing so well-suited to the medical industry?
When you consider the very nature of the hospital environment, there are literally thousands of potential applications for additive manufacturing to be utilised. With an uncompromised need for sterile equipment, the use of disposable, 3D printed parts could reduce the need for autoclaving and re-use, whilst also allowing for a higher degree of flexibility surrounding the design and functionality of such tools. For instance, commonly used equipment could be made more compact as a result of additive manufacturing, whilst contact items - along with pipes and cannulas - could, in theory, be 3D printed to specification overnight.
Additive manufacturing is also used to create entirely bespoke implants and prosthetics. The workable nature of the design process surrounding 3D printing means that such items can be modified easily, whilst the manufacturing phase allows for a fast turnaround from concept to completion. Applications for additive manufacturing even extend to the likes of transplants, with body parts themselves being 3D printed - for instance, heart valves, and even skin. The ability to rapidly produce artificial organs could slash the transplant waiting lists of the future and potentially save an untold amount of lives.
This level of customisation can also be applied to the medical equipment itself. Whereas longer production journeys mean that the available equipment is restricted to its own shortcomings, additive manufacturing can be used to create instruments that meet the needs of individual patients, thereby improving the probability and speed of recovery.
Dentistry and additive manufacturing:
Of course, additive manufacturing can also serve the individual niches of the medical and healthcare spheres. Dentistry is one such area, with some practices now producing the likes of orthodontic models, crowns, dentures, retainers and veneers via 3D printing.
It has also revolutionised the way that procedures such as root canal surgery can be performed. Using cone beam CT scans, dentists are able to measure a patient’s canals so that the root can be filled correctly without perforation; the resulting scans can then be converted into STL files, allowing the dentist to 3D print a crown or inlay, as well as any mesh or filling materials required. Surgery can even be practiced on 3D models, resulting in minimal discomfort and distress to the patient whilst also reducing the overall length of the procedure.
What about the cost of short production runs and one-off bespoke parts?
Whereas other methods of manufacture may require tooling, this is not the case for additive manufacturing and 3D printing. Losing this aspect of the production process means that one-off bespoke parts and short production runs are considerably cheaper versus traditional manufacturing techniques, supporting the benefit of tailoring parts to suit individual needs.
Although medical and healthcare are examples of industries in which quality cannot be compromised in the name of price, it still factors into the viability of such advancements within reality.
Will additive manufacturing revolutionise the healthcare sphere?
It is entirely possible that we will see major changes to the medical sphere in the wake of 3D printing. These advancements could bring about instruments that succeed their predecessors in terms of both functionality and performance, as well as reducing - or perhaps even replacing - the need for human organ donation. Ultimately, additive manufacturing and 3D printing could be responsible for saving and improving countless lives, whilst also shaping the hospital environment to completely meet the needs of every single patient.