How 3D Printing Can Save Lives: Additive Manufacturing in the Medical Industry, 2022

19 October 2022
Skull Model

In its early years, 3D printing was regarded as an overly experimental last resort where matters of human health were concerned. Today, however, additive manufacturing is rapidly becoming a reliable and transformative resource to the medical industry. 

Through the lens of healthcare, the benefits that are regularly attached to AM – speed, customizability, cost-effectiveness, flexibility – come to have a bearing not solely on business optimisation, but on the preservation of human life. Recognition of its potency as a medical solution is increasingly entering the industry’s consciousness; Report Study expects the market for 3D printed medical parts to exceed USD 5.89 billion by 2030, with a projected CAGR of 23.28% slated between 2022 and 2030. 

From patching up minor health complications, to tackling life-or-death situations, additive manufacturing has stepped forward as a solution primed to approach almost anything where medical complications are concerned. The COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis to which 3D printed PPE has been particularly invaluable, seems to have only further fuelled the initiative to investigate just how far AM technology can develop as a life-saving tool.

Although some of AM’s more fantastical medical potentialities are yet to breach the border from concept to reality, the quality of being ‘far fetched’ has very rarely hindered the 3D printing industry in the past. This article endeavours to unpick some of the most exciting AM parts produced within medical contexts this year, covering just a handful of the use-cases to which it has been applied. 


AM in Dentistry


Formlabs Form 3 SLA Printer
[Image credit: Formlabs Inc.]

Of the diverse departments operating within the shared genre of ‘healthcare’, dentistry is currently the largest user of AM technologies. Despite the pandemic’s disruptive influence, SmarTech analysis remained optimistic in 2020 that the market for 3D printed dental products would still reach 3.1 billion USD by 2021. Today, this sphere’s growth is certainly proceeding as expected, Markets and Markets’ recent report anticipating a tremendous 7.9 billion USD in revenue by 2027. 

Dentistry and additive manufacturing smoothly complement one another for a number of reasons. The parts which a professional conventionally seeks to produce – orthodontic models, occlusal guards, retainers, dentures – are likely to be small, where other industries might 3D print on a broader range of scales. Whilst vehicle parts can differ immensely in size, to use the automotive industry as an example, a mouth can only be so wide. In turn, though AM is already well known for its exceptional production speeds, the required components will take even less time to print, and can be produced in batches, further streamlining the production process. Dental issues can be addressed with swiftness, whilst the products themselves can be constructed with greater precision than ever before. 

Whilst production processes are eased for dentists, the procedure undergone by patients receiving AM mouth casts is also significantly less invasive where 3D printing is implemented. As many readers may recall from their braces-wearing days, the process of taking an impression of the teeth traditionally involves pressing a tray filled with an alginate and water mixture into a patient’s mouth, taking a top and bottom ‘negative’ impression. Blocking the patient’s throat as the dentist waits for the solution to harden, this common procedure can often be distressing to younger patients. However, AM mould-making replaces physical impressions with digital impressions, recorded using an intraoral 3D scanner device, removing the onerousness of the process for dentist and patient alike. 

One company leading the way in making AM accessible within dentistry is Formlabs, a 3D printing technology developer. Their best-selling ‘Form 3’ SLA desktop printer range prides itself on its simplicity and comprehensibility, facilitating straightforward usage by those who may have limited experience in the additive manufacturing sphere. The Form3B+ was released in January of this year, showcasing increased laser power, improved LPU stabilisation, and compatibility with over 35 materials. Though the pandemic may have thrown the natural evolution of dentistry’s intertwinement with AM off its course when social distancing restrictions descended, developments are curving upwards once again. 


AM Prosthetics and Implants 


a photo of Psyonic's prosthetic hand holding a raspberry in a its thumb and forefinger
[Image credit: Psyonic]

Additive manufacturing’s most visible medical usage comes in the production of prosthetics. For those living with amputation, prosthesis is unfortunately not always a viable option. Prosthetics can be extremely expensive, often costing tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and fit, let alone to maintain in the case of breakage or malfunction. A prosthetic that may have initially offered an ideal fit could become detrimental to the patient as time passes and their body changes – from excessive sweating to changes in the residual limb’s shape, a number of factors may eventually necessitate an entirely new prosthetic to be administered. Whatever the patient, costs are bound to escalate. 

As an article by John Hopkins Medical relates, ‘prosthetic legs are not one size fits all’. However, this is precisely the type of problem which 3D printing is perfectly suited to address. 

Endeavouring to tackle the astronomical cost of prosthetics, Psyonic was born, a company which has funnelled immense research and development into creating the world’s first touch sensing bionic hand, named The Ability Hand. Teaming up with Formlabs – further solidifying this company’s centrality within the medical 3D printing world – Psyonic integrated additive manufacturing into their process primarily as a means of lowering the final product’s cost, implemented alongside injection and silicone moulding as well as CNC machining. However, AM also facilitated the production of complicated mould formations and significantly quickened production times. As the first bionic hand manufacturer to operate in the US, creating a product 150% faster than alternative prosthetics on the market, Psyonic’s Ability Hand leads the technological development of prosthesis whilst simultaneously offering unconventional affordability. 

3D printing’s success extends beyond the production of parts solely intended for external bodily use; additively manufactured medical implants have been cropping up with increasing frequency. Greater complexity and higher risk comes with this subsection of AM in healthcare, revolving around the compatibility of 3D printed materials with the human body. Surgical procedures involving the insertion of foreign objects come with a number of risks, many centring around the possibility of the body rejecting the implant. Though the application of biocompatible materials in any medical implement is imperative, implants make their home permanently within the body, meaning subsequent complications are particularly difficult to address. 

In a 2022 publication of the scientific journal Acta Biomaterialia, electron beam melting (EBM) was found unparalleled as a mode of metal and alloy implant production. This 3D printing process involves creating a high vacuum environment, thus preventing any trace elements from contaminating printed parts. Titanium, a metal commonly found in medical implants for its longstanding strength and resistance to chemical reactions, is one metal which EBM is able to safely print. In particular, this substance’s inclination towards spontaneous oxidation and nitrogen pick-up when exposed to air is counteracted by the vacuumous space in which EBM operates, preventing such reactions from disrupting the final product’s properties. Capable of producing ‘osseointegrating implants of any conceivable shape/size’ (Acta Biomaterialia), EBM is carving a new path for 3D printed implant creation. 


AM in Medicine


Unslpash pills scattered over a table
[Image credit: James Yarema]

‘Not one size fits all’ is a sentiment which finds overarching applicability within healthcare as a whole, putting into words one of the core difficulties driving forward medical development: how can we establish a singular key to ensuring the wellbeing and good health of the population when each individual within it is so different?

3D printing offers a remedy to this question in a strikingly literal sense. Additively manufactured medicine is on track to completely transform the industry. 

The mass production of generic drug formulas fails to cater to those whose ailments require very specific treatments. Though a number of practitioners do offer manual drug compounding services, the results risk being ineffective, and the process itself does not guarantee sufficient quality control. As a result, those who require specialised modes of care have very few options open to them, left at the mercy of their anatomical complexities. 

However, in 2015, the tide began to turn when the first 3D printed drug received FDA approval. The tablet, Spritam, was designed by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals to treat epilepsy, using fluid to merge layers of powder in a process given the title ‘ZipDose’. At the time, the AM dimension of the procedure simply afforded pharmacists better control over assembling the pill, not necessarily offering a faster, customisable or more cost effective means of medicine production.

Nonetheless, this quickly changed with the 2020 introduction of UK company FabRx’s M3DIMAKER, the world’s first 3D printer specifically designed to produce personalised medicines. Equipping a range of AM technologies, from FDM to SLS and SLA, 3D printing rose into the spotlight as a mode of rethinking drug production. 

Since M3DIMAKER’s release, developments in the AM medicine scene have continued to climb. Earlier this year, a partnership between drug compounding service provider CurifyLabs and 3D printer manufacturing company Natural Machines started developing a technology enabling custom medicine production by way of additive manufacturing. Endeavouring to implement ‘Medicine as a Service’ on a global scale, an experiment that began small under ten years ago lies on the brink of transforming the industry. 

A future in which medicines are produced on a customer specific basis, overturning what it means for a drug to be considered ‘successful’, is right on our doorstep.


AM in Medical Research



3D printed model of a spine
[Image credit: Business Wire]


One of additive manufacturing’s specialities is the ability to offer its services on-demand, as and when parts are needed. However, AM also importantly facilitates preparation for the future. Initially reaching widespread utilisation as a rapid prototyping tool, R&D is a domain within which the technology continues to thrive. 

As of 2022, the application of 3D printing to research purposes has stretched further than ever before, both figuratively and literally entering the stratosphere; AON3D’s M2+ printer was recently chosen by the Canadian Space Agency to produce centrifuges to be employed towards researching the effects of living in space on the human body.

Broadening the design potentials available to researchers, and drastically cutting down the time required to develop multiple prototypes, additive manufacturing powerfully made its case as a superior alternative to the slow and limited results afforded by traditional manufacturing methods. In line with NASA’s material requirements, Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 resin was selected as an apt substance for printing, featuring fire resistance and non-toxicity. The centrifuge will be put to the task of conducting blood fractionation on the International Space Station, a process in which blood is broken down into its micro-components.

Medical applications of additive manufacturing are not only shaping up to change our world, remodelling clinical procedures and opening doors to higher healthcare standards. Its capacities are also being catapulted past the global and into the realm of the existential, embraced as a tool through which to conduct some of the most exciting research of our age. 


Unchartered Territory Remains…


human heart inside a 3d printer
[Image credit: Scharfsinn / Shutterstock]


A few people reading this article may be struggling to push back at least a hint of disappointment that 3D printed organs failed to make an appearance on this list. For some time, the possibility of developing a working AM heart or lung has been regarded as the pinnacle of medical AM’s potential. 

However, the industry’s proximity to additively manufacturing fully functioning organs is increasing at thrilling rates. 

Though not yet fully operational, organs have been 3D printed. Standing at the forefront of this progress is research company Organovo, the first to create a bioprinted human liver and kidney through the use of a patient’s own cell samples, using AM to construct tissues one layer at a time. 

Now comes the next hurdle – engineering the parts to function as necessary. Forwarding research into this possibility, Stevens Institute of Technology is turning to microfluidic technology as an alternative approach to organ manufacture. This involves 3D printing on a microscopic scale, giving way to structures measuring just tens of microns across, more closely mirroring the cellular scale on which real organs grow. As associate professor at Stevens Schaefer School of Engineering & Science Robert Chang explains, scale directly correlates with functionality: “it affects the biology of the organ. We’re operating at the scale of human cells, and that lets us print structures that mimic the biological features we’re trying to replicate.” The riddle persists: how is it possible to make an artificial organ behaviourally mimic a real one still? Nevertheless, the research currently underway is undeniably promising.

As additive manufacturing permeates healthcare, a field in which disruptions and delays can have live-threatening knock on effects, the implementation of a streamlining MES software must also importantly weave itself into the scene. AMFG, a flexible, end-to-end workflow software solution simplifying and streamlining additive manufacturing operations, is well positioned to take on operations of this nature. Such services are those without which widespread AM organ transplantation could never be achievable.

Though it may take some years for the medical industry to extend the offer of a 3D printed organ to a patient, it is no longer correct to deem the possibility ‘out of reach’. Indeed, we are very much touching it, if only tantalisingly by our fingertips.




Enjoyed this? Check out our last article, ‘Industry 4.0: 5 Real-World Examples of Digital Manufacturing in Action’. 


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