3-D printing is making a big impact in medical applications. Not that the technology is new — W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., among others, has been using 3-D printing for decades. It was used to make models and prototypes, says Eric Miller, principal and co-owner of Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies, which provides 3-D printers and 3-D printing services and is working with the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation in its recently launched maker lab. “What’s changed is, they can make parts they use for clinical testing.”
It’s a tremendous advantage in research. Whereas, in the past, creating a physical iteration of something required finding someone to design it and make it work, “Now you just print it,” Miller says. And if a problem were discovered with the design, it meant starting over to work with someone to design and manufacture.
And most manufacturing processes are optimized to make multiple copies. 3-D printing is inherently custom, so there’s no difference in cost to produce an item for individual patient, Miller points out, noting also that 3-D printing enables the manufacture of shapes that cannot be made with traditional manufacturing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is accepting parts made with a 3-D printer, so medical devices can now be certified with 3-D-printed components. To be OK’d for use in the human body, a material must be certified to not be toxic, not cause other reactions, and be able to be sterilized without destroying its properties.
Mayo Clinic Orthopedic Surgery in Arizona has been using its device for custom-designed implants since mid-2012; colleagues at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., were using it for several years prior. Orthopedic surgeon Christopher Beauchamp explains they make a model and do a practice run with it, which increases accuracy during the real surgery, and then send the model of the patient’s joint to a manufacturer to make the custom implant. Mayo Clinic spokesperson James McVeigh says other uses in other medical and surgical specialties are evolving.
“Ten to 15 percent of our sales and services is in medical 3-D printing, and we expect it to grow faster now, with metal an approved material,” Miller says, explaining there are many applications, such as artificial hips, for which plastic is not strong enough.