Doctors in the UK recently used computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3D printed components to reconstruct the face of a motorcycle crash survivor. Dr. Adrian Sugar, a consultant maxillofacial surgeon at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, U.K., where the surgery took place, said, “[W]e produced guides at each stage of the surgical process, not only to cut the bone but to reposition the bones, and then we had custom implants 3D printed.” The surgical team spent months planning the procedure, which included taking scans of the patient’s face, creating a software model of his head, designing scaffolds to be used during the surgery, and the final implants. Dr. Sugar said that the team took extra care to document and design a repeatable process that would enable much shorter turnaround time for future surgeries. He added, “We’re talking maybe days as opposed to months. The ultimate aim is to undertake planning and be able to use custom-made guides and implants on a routine basis.”
As 3D printing makes a splash across multiple technology areas, one of the most promising could be medical implants and prosthetics. As mentioned in the report “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” (client registration required), companies including Oxford Performance Materials (client registration required) and Arcam (client registration required) have already received U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 510(k) clearance for the use of their 3D printed materials for orthopedic and cranial implants. The ability to customize and quickly redesign 3D printed components has a specific added value for orthopedic implants and prostheses that need to be custom fitted to each patient. To this point, 3D printing has been restricted to passive medical applications. However, the emergence of 3D printing systems like those developed by Optomec (client registration required) that can deposit metal and plastic concurrently could enable the production of customized active implants – e.g. pacemakers, insulin pumps, and neurostimulators. Clients interested in new approaches to medical therapies should consider engaging with players in the 3D printing space that have a proven record of regulatory compliance, while steering clear of companies that claim medical applications with no proven track record.