The health care sector is increasingly tapping 3D printing—a process that creates solid objects from digital 3D designs. According to Visiongain, health care investments in 3D printing will reach $4 billion by 2018. The technology can be used to customize medical products, lower surgery risks and even print human cells, tissues and organs.
So far, 3D printers have been able to turn out not just surgical tools but also prostheses, hearing aids and medical implants that are personalized to the bone or organ structure of the patient. Dental labs have utilized 3D printing to automate processes than were once done manually. In surgical planning, detailed models based on a patient’s MRI or CT scan data are constructed through 3D printing. Surgical teams use the models to plan operations and in turn ensure successful outcomes in complex cases, such as those of conjoined twins.
Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Organovo, among other researchers and startups, have been focused on the 3D printing of human cells and tissues, and the University of Iowa on organs. A few research universities in Australia and Europe have actually began offering bioprinting—the method of growing human tissue via 3D printers—as a master’s program.
At the University of California’s Derisi Lab, 3D printing allows users to create designs for lab equipment. This gets them what they need much faster (and at a lower cost) than ordering from vendors or having the parts custom-machined. Product development is getting a boost as well, with companies relying on 3D printers to quickly build prototypes for medical devices and equipment.
All this is just the start of the 3-D revolution, as some call it. There is still a vast array of potential applications for 3-D printers and the health care sector will surely see more innovative designs and solutions in the coming years.