People are often excited to hear that a product has been 3D printed, and that’s particularly true within the MedTech industry.
I believe the term paints an image of futuristic robotic technology producing parts that somehow defy the laws of modern science and manufacturing. For many, this image is well justified as 3D printing does break many long-held conventions of manufacturing. The new possibilities 3D printing presents is what makes it such an exciting topic to discuss in boardrooms and coffee shops.
Few know that 3D printing, as we now understand it, has existed since the 1980s. Like most technology the original machines were large and expensive. However, through years of development it is now something that people can have on their desktops at home. Since 3D printing has become accessible to more people, the wider understanding of the technology has increased. 3D printing now has a growing hobbyist following that produce their own innovative designs for almost anything you can think of.
Commercially, 3D printing is used in several ways. It is particularly popular with the automotive and aeronautical industry as organically shaped parts have always been difficult and expensive to produce using current manufacturing techniques. The way 3D printers manufacture parts by building them in layers has made almost any geometry a possibility for production. This allows designers to create more idealistic geometries for bespoke parts that would have been discouraged previously.
One of the most interesting aspect of 3D printing is its use in the MedTech industry. 3D printers are used in a couple of general application areas. The first is in preoperative planning. Surgeons are now able to have physical models of a patient’s anatomy 3D printed prior to surgery so that they can decide the most effective treatment after hands–on assessment. The parts are modelled using layered CT scans of the patient’s treatment area. This is particularly beneficial in complex or irregular cases as it prevents surgeons from having to react to unexpected anatomical anomalies during surgery.
Another aspect of preoperative planning is the creation of patient–specific drill and cutting guides. In orthopaedic surgery it is possible to utilise the printed model of the patient’s skeletal structure to work with a design team to create the perfect drill guide before commencing surgery. This allows the surgeon to ensure positioning of the intended screw insertions or saw blades will be best suited to their patient. Once the guide is finalised, it can then be printed in an appropriate material, sterilised and used on the patient during surgery.
The final general area of 3D printing in MedTech, is the production of implants themselves. It has happened in some cases that a patient’s anatomy has been scanned and printed to make a model, which was then assessed and tested to design an implant, and then the implant was manufactured on a 3D printer before being used in surgery. The opposite end of the scale of the general area of 3D printing in MedTech is the mass manufacture of implants or components using 3D printing techniques.
The manufacturing of implants can be separated into standard and custom devices. Currently 3D printed titanium cages for degenerative disc surgeries in the spine have become quite common. They offer an alternative to existing PEEK cages as titanium cages provide increased strength and reliability. Due to the manufacturing technique, designs of printed cages allow for better bone integration by having deliberately rough end plate surfaces and a porous internal construction which allows bone to grow through the cage.
Custom–made implants is what fascinates most people. The thought of having an implant that is unique to the individual is very appealing to many patients as it is assumed that a custom part will be a guarantee of fit, performance and comfort. It is also gratifying to a patient to know that something has been manufactured uniquely for them.
Bespoke manufacturing of implants is still expensive and is only available in a minimal number of cases. The time required to measure for and design the implant, the staff involved, and single batch manufacturing all contribute to the high price tag of a bespoke custom implant. Considering Titanium as a material, 3D printing does offer a quicker, safer and sometimes cheaper alternative to traditional manufacturing processes. The cost effectiveness of 3D printing can be reduced when only manufacturing one part per print cycle, as is the case with a custom-made implant. Manufacturing a repeated standard shape in one print cycle divides the print cost by the number of parts made, which is why most commercial 3D printed implants are standardised designs.
If the commercial challenge can be overcome, it would then be sensible to presume that more custom implants could be available to patients. Unfortunately, with tight budgets and overworked staff it is difficult to tell how soon the NHS would be able to offer fully customised implants; however progress is being made. The printing of patient models and drill guides is becoming more common in the NHS and is a commercialised service. I do believe this is a service that more hospitals will be able to provide in the future.
The future innovations in 3D printing within the MedTech industry is bioprinting. Bioprinting uses biomaterials which contain cellular structures. Organs, or in most cases parts of organs, have been successfully printed and then implanted in humans. One notable success was a bladder which was completely 3D printed then successfully implanted within a patient without rejection. It is possible to print many types of human tissue such as bone, cartilage and even muscle. Bioprinting is not yet a perfect science, and much development of biomaterials and applicable printers has yet to be completed. However, it is a very encouraging area of development for the future of medicine.
At Ortho Consulting Group, we are always keen to enable companies pioneering innovative technologies to gain a foothold in various marketplaces throughout the world. As the pandemic hopefully begins to subside over this coming year, we look forward to working with clients that disrupt markets with new products and applications.
LinkedIn: Andrew Sangster
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