The Future of 3-D Printing

Posted by John Patrick on

3 D

I was one of the 4,000 people who attended the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo at the Javits Convention Center in New York in April 2014. The conference producers reported that a survey showed that 40% of the population sampled said they had never heard of 3-D printing, but it was clear from this conference that it is revolutionizing manufacturing in every industry, enabling new products, and changing business processes for how things get from concept to production. One speaker called it an industrial renaissance.  I think of it as a second industrial revolution that will be equal to the impact of the Internet and that the biggest impact will be in healthcare.

A British gentleman in his 60s was suffering from chondrosarcoma of the pelvis, a rare form of cancer that could not be treated with radiation or drugs. The only option was to replace the diseased half of his pelvis. Such surgery would have been unheard of in the recent past, but with the advent of 3-D scanners and printers, there was a chance of success. A United Kingdom implant maker used a 3-D scan and then printed a custom model of the half-pelvis. Stephen Levy wrote an elegant story (see Man with 3-D Printed Pelvis Walks Again) about the steps involved. The 3-D printing process used a laser to fuse multiple layers of titanium powder to create the new pelvis part. The new part was then coated with a mineral that would be hospitable to the growth of new bone. The surgical team used a surgical robot to assist in the 12-hour procedure. The final step was to perform a hip replacement that fit into a socket of the new pelvis part. U.K. newspapers reported that three years after the complex procedure, the gentleman is able to walk with the help of a cane. Many more marvels are in our future. The breakthrough is not just 3-D printed body parts, but parts of parts that can accommodate growth of new tissue or bone into the replaced parts. See my earlier story about Regenerative Medicine.

Science Daily reported that ground breaking hip and stem cell surgery was completed in the United Kingdom using a 3-D-printed implant. Scientists and doctors have now collaborated to perform hip surgery using a 3-D-printed implant and a bone stem cell graft. The 3-D hip was designed using a CT scan of the patient’s own hip that was transferred to computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing software (CADCAM). The hip was designed using the exact specifications of the patient’s measurements. The 3-D hip was then printed using titanium. The new implant will provide a socket for the ball of the femur bone. Stem cell grafts were inserted behind the implant and between the pelvis. Creating grafts with stem cells from the patient helps insure that the cells are not rejected. In a few years from now, the procedure will seem primitive and the enhanced and more fully automated processes will seem commonplace.

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