But perhaps the most exciting use of this technology can be seen in the healthcare industry. And, as the technology advances and becomes more accessible, we will see even more uses for it.
Driving Down the Cost of Healthcare
Medical technologies are typically expensive when they enter the market, then become cheaper over time. However, a majority of the 3D-printers are coming onto the market at very reasonable prices. This has the potential to significantly drive down rising healthcare costs. And just in the nick of time, as we will see more Baby Boomers flood the system at alarming rates.
It’s the technology behind 3D-printing that makes the solutions so cost-effective. Essentially, objects are built from digital models using additive processes where successive layers of material are laid on top of one another. Since objects can be assembled directly from digital models, precision increases significantly, removing room for error.
Consider older manufacturing techniques that rely on taking away material (cutting, chopping, drilling) to make an object’s model instead of adding material like 3D-printing. These waste and extraction costs add up, and those expenses get passed on to consumers. But 3D-printing can get around all of that.
3D-Printing and Replacing Body Parts
“The 6 Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” were very successful TV series in the 1970s about physically broken people who were fixed by advanced technology. Bionic legs allowed these everyday heroes to run faster and jump higher. Bionic eyes let them see farther and bionic ears gave them extraordinary hearing.
What was once science fiction is now becoming a reality thanks to 3D-printing technology. Scientists at Princeton University have used the technology to that will allow people to hear radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human hearing.
Through , science is looking for ways to create customized replacement parts that contain capabilities beyond what human biology itself provides. And, whether printed parts like kidneys and lungs offer regular or superior performance capabilities, this technology could someday save countless lives of people who wait on long organ donor lists.
3D-Printing and Surgery
3D bioprinting is also becoming commonplace in the operating room, particularly when it comes to cancer treatments. For instance, in 2014, scientists developed a quick and inexpensive way to create facial prosthesis for patients who had undergone using facial scanning software and 3D-printing.
In 2015, a group of researchers discovered it is entirely possible to print patient-specific biodegradable implants that are more effective at curing bone infections and bone cancer.
These are staggering advances in 3D-printing technology and we will no doubt see more in the OR that will bring science fiction into mainstream medicine.
Here are some other ways 3D-printing is changing the landscape of medicine.
The cost of traditional prosthetics is a significant barrier to those without the proper resources. But 3D-printing is making production relatively cheap, bringing hope and mobility to thousands.
Researchers are now able to produce cheap and easily customizable prosthetic sockets for people in third-world nations, where the destruction of war has left many with amputated limbs. Once locals are trained on how to operate the technology, they can create patient-specific limbs quickly and easily.
Print Prescription Drugs at Home
Scientists at the University of Glasgow have been busy making a prototype 3D printer that would be capable of assembling chemical compounds at the molecular level. This means someday a patient could go to an online drugstore with a digital prescription, buy the blueprint and chemical ink they need, then print their drugs at home.
James Yoo at the Wake Forest School of Medicine has developed straight onto the wounds of burn victims. Wounds are first scanned, then the printer fabricates the right number of skin layers to fill it in. Currently, the United States army is funding use of Yoo’s technology to treat wounded soldiers.
As previously mentioned, 3D-printing is making a positive impact in poverty-stricken areas of the world because it provides health solutions, like customizable prosthetics, at a fraction of the price.
Another area where the technology is being used is in the affordable creation of medical equipment. For instance, the group iLab has brought 3D-printing to Haiti where it is used to make umbilical cord clamps for the local hospitals. In the future we may see these printers create bandages, catheters and endoscopes as well.
3D-printing is revolutionizing every facet of medicine and how care can be delivered. Thanks to this constantly-advancing technology, medicine is becoming more available and affordable, and countless lives are being saved.