A design for life: how 3D printing is transforming healthcare

NASA is already experimenting with 3D printing in space with a view to manufacturing components. These rocket scientists already know 3D printing technologies are transformational. Here are some other examples of just how much potential there is for 3D printing in healthcare. 


People with disabilities are often forced to use mass-produced prosthetic devices that may be uncomfortable or ill-fitting making. Creating prosthetics with 3D printers, on the other hand, allows the creation of personalized assistive solutions that meld closely to the body of the person needing to use them. They’re tailormade.

E-NABLE is an international volunteer-led organization that creates prosthetic hands and arms for people in need. And last year’s James Dyson award went to Open Bionics, who can create and print replacement 3D robotic hands in just two days.

Meanwhile 3D printed splints are being tested at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, Wales. Casts are printed in a flexible material and are designed to be much easier to apply and remove than the current Velcro splints. They are printed using a 3D scan of the patient’s limb, so they should fit the patient perfectly, be easy to replace and can be more effective than the splints they replace.

Organ replacement

January 2016 saw an extremely significant moment in 3D printing and health when doctors successfully transplanted an adult kidney into a 2-year old child with the aid of 3D printing. Lucy was suffering from heart failure that caused her kidneys to fail, as a result of this she had to endure kidney dialysis three times a week. Doctors used 3D printing to create accurate models of the girl and her adult kidney donor’s organs, enabling them to safely plan every moment of the transplant operation. This proved an essential step in ensuring success in this dangerous and complex operation. The future isn’t confined to operational assistance. Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have managed to genetically transform skin cells into heart cells, using these to 3D print mini-organs that beat like hearts. The scientists aim to simulate bodily systems, but it seems clear that if you can build miniature versions, full replacement parts will appear, though that achievement remains far off yet. Gartner estimates that “by 2019, 3D printing will be a critical tool in over 35% of surgical procedures requiring prosthetic and implant devices (including synthetic organs) placed inside and around the body”.

Broken bones

An Australian breakthrough developed at the University of Wollongong, the Bio-Pen enables surgeons to draw cells directly onto bone. In use this means bone and cartilage may in future be repaired by drawing new cells onto the bone during a surgical procedure. It won’t be as easy as drawing a picture, of course, all the research shows 3D printed cells must be carefully cultivated before they are fit for use. However this technology has already moved into clinical trials, with researchers using bio-ink composed of stem cells and polymers. The cells grow into tissue once inside the body. Tests so far show a 97 percent survival rate for these cells, potentially providing huge breakthroughs in treatment of fractures and complex orthopedic treatments. There is also the potential to print personalized-for-the-patient medical tools on the fly for use in medical procedures.

Bone replacement

If you can’t repair the bone, replace it. It seems clear that one of the biggest potential needs for future medicine will be body part replacement with 3D printing already used to create a replacement jaw for a turtle and replacement beak for a toucan. The research has moved forward fast, and a Spanish team at Salamanca University Hospital recently swapped part of a Spanish cancer patient’s rib cage with a 3D-printed titanium replacement. The replacement bone included an artificial sternum to strengthen the cancer-ravaged original. The challenge wasn’t just in the surgery, but in that every person’s rib cage is different, which is why 3D printing was essential to ensure the replacement operation would succeed. The replacement bodyparts were printed by Australia’s CSIRO, whose CEO, Adam Night said: “We are no strangers to biomedical applications of 3D printing: in the past we have used our know-how to create devices like the 3D printed heel-bone, or the 3D printed mouth-guard for sleep apnea suffers.” Or dentures, which seems inevitable.

Big Data, pharmaceuticals and more

It’s hard to predict what benefit the combination of big data, artificial intelligence and 3D printing will bring, but the opportunity is certainly there. IBM’s recent billion-dollar takeover of medical image handling company Merge Healthcare will see that firm’s excellence in image handling combined with IBM’s Watson AI, potentially letting the computer diagnose some conditions. Take this a step further and there may presumably be opportunity for 3D printing of pharmaceutical solutions personalized for best results on patients. The recent 3D Medicine Printing Conference also considered the potential for on-demand drug printing facilities, meaning even remote pharmacies need never run out of stock, and enabling some patients to live more independent lives using 3D drug printing solutions based in their homes. In combination with advances in mobile health, the potential exists for a radical and fundamental transformation in the way medical care is provided, accessed and delivered.

A truly disruptive technology, 3D printing is changing the face of healthcare as the world knows it. Orange Business has worked with customers in the healthcare sector for many years and can help organizations drive the maximum digital impact from this revolutionary technology.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.