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How 3D printing is changing the healthcare industry



3d printing

First, there was 3D comics and those ridiculous-looking fire engine red and blue glasses. Then came 3D movies and their (thankfully) more modern-looking eyewear. And now, it seems, another form of 3D generation is becoming mainstream, especially for the healthcare industry.

According to the Healthcare Trends Institute, 3D printing is one of eight technological innovations on the rise in 2017. The most common process, also called additive manufacturing, involves creating objects by layering plastic or metal powder on a platform. A laser or electron beam then melts the material so the following layer can adhere together and become solid. The process is repeated over and over until completion.

While the greatest applications so far have been industrial manufacturing, 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular in health specialities, especially within dentistry. Some speculate that dentistry’s relationship with 3D printing, which focuses on orthodontic equipment like impression trays, brackets, and dental implants, will grow an estimated 515 percent by the year 2025.

Right now, though, 3D printing is limited to surgical instrumentation, implants, and external prosthetics, but there’s ongoing research and development for printing organs and organic limbs using human tissue. While the latter sounds like something from Star Trek, having the ability to build body parts at will could transform our notions of organ transplant and loss of limbs.

The medical advantage for 3D printing is important. When it comes to patient needs, 3D printing allows customized manufacturing based on specific patient dimensions and complex anatomic needs that aren’t possible with traditional man-made manufacturing. Each design would be adapted from a pre-existing template using internal imaging.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is both testing and regulating printing machines. Regulation is similar in scope to how medical devices are evaluated for quality, but the FDA is still exploring the long-term benefits of the medium. For example, “the FDA has printers that use different printing technologies, including powder bed fusion, to evaluate what parts of the printing processes and workflows are critical to ensure quality of the finished medical device.”

As mentioned earlier, 3D printing isn’t limited to medicine. It’s also being used for industrial and personal manufacturing. For major manufacturers, this method’s precision helps reduce excessive loss of materials. And while not nearly as advanced as larger industrial counterparts, machines are also available for home, ranging from $200 to more than $3,000.

Perhaps one day you’ll even be able to make your own personal tractor beam while watching Star Trek reruns on the couch. 

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