You know someone who doesn’t have a smartphone? Wow, that has become something very rare (your great-grandmother and your hipster friend with an old Nokia don’t count!). Probably as rare as someone owning a computer was, when your parents were young. However, the performance and possibilities of a computer back then are ridiculous compared with any of the about 2 billion existing smartphones.
A similar development is currently happening with 3D printers. A few years ago a 3D printer was as much as a Ferrari. Times have changed and powerful printers like the Makerbot Replicator 2 (2000$, made in the US) or the Ultimaker 2 (1850€, made in the Netherlands) make 3D printing affordable for anyone (let it be a hobby designer, a small company or a general practitioner).
It works pretty simple: With a 3D program (like Photoshop, just with 3 dimensions) you design a model and send it to your printer. The printer melts so-called “filament” (a form of plastic) and brings it into the shape of your design.
I’m convinced that this technology will advance healthcare dramatically. How? Here are some examples:
The Cortex Cast invented by a New Zealand designer is a 3D-printed medical device that might replace old-fashioned casts in the medium term. By 3D-scanning the broken limb a model for the cast is being designed. Inspired by the spongy structure of a bone and honeycombs, the result looks fancy. The cast fits perfectly and its openings allow the patient on the one hand to scratch itchy spots and the skin on the other hand to breath. Also, it’s waterproof – making a broken limb much more comfortable than it used to be. An improved version of this modern cast allows to connect an ultrasound to the openings of the cast. 20 minutes of ultrasound a day reduce the healing time by 38% stimulating the osteoid synthesis.
3D-printed medical device to track and treat heart disease
Scientists of the Washington University in St. Louis have developed a printable device that can predict heart attacks and is able to treat heart defects. With a computed tomography scan of the heart a model is created which is used to print a silicone layer for the heart. Onto this layer sensors are being printed which are capable of measuring temperature, mechanic stress and pH. In addition to that, those sensors are also able to give tiny electric shocks which adjust the heart beat, treating heart disease. That silicone layer is being wrapped around the heart and constanlty tracks vital signs and also your troponine level (an important biomarker to diagnose heart attacks).
3D-printed exoskeleton to replace wheelchairs
Together with 3D systems and EKSO Bionics inventor and designer Scott Summit developed a method to connect the mechanics of a robot with individual, printed parts. The result is a medical device that allows people who are unable to use their legs to actually walk (again). It’s amazing, check it out:
3D-printed skull implant
A few months ago a woman got a major part of her skull replaced by a 3D-printed implant. The surgery was done by Dr. Bon Verweij at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands. Verweij designed the implant together with an Australian company. In comparison to former cement implants this new technology makes sure, that the implant is a perfect fit. In terms of cosmetics AND brain functions. The patient is able to see again and is already back in her job.
When your parents were young they never would have guess what a powerful tool the computer might become. In the form of smartphones we’re carrying around more computers than there’re toothbrushes on this planet. It’s equally hard for us to predict what an importance 3D printers will gain in the future. We can hardly guess what materials we’ll be able to print. Silicone is only one of them and whole printed organs are not even the end of the spectrum.