Additive manufacturing in the medical & dental industriesInfinite Editorial Team
Part III of this four-part series examines the ways in which additive manufacturing is impacting medical training, patient treatment, and healthcare.
Additive manufacturing (AM) has proven to be a natural fit for the medical and dental industry, seamlessly enabling customization of necessities such as prosthetics and orthopedics, and providing a frictionless method for modeling and prototyping.
As the technology matures in terms of scalability and material compatibility, the possibilities continue to grow. Today, AM can be used to print surgical instruments, tissue, and organoids. Tomorrow, we may be able to print limbs and joint cartilage.
By 2025, some experts predict 3D printing for the medical industry market size will grow to $3.5 billion. Other estimates have the industry escalating to $6.4 billion by 2028. With a younger population comfortable with new technologies, and an aging older population with a longer life expectancy, the acceptance and use of 3D-printed and bioprinted parts is expected to mature and thrive.
Innovations in healthcare: Where the industry is today
Additive manufacturing is a general term encompassing several different printing technologies, from familiar names, such as 3D printing and fused filament fabrication (FFF), to the emergent, such as bioprinting, which is the ability to print materials that incorporate living cells to produce tissues and organs. For the medical and dental industry, these printing technologies enable the creation of products that facilitate research and education, and those that support treatment and ongoing healthcare.
For example, 3D printing can be used to print surgical models, surgical tools, prosthetics, and orthotics. Bioprinting has also paved the way for cranium and spine implants, as well as hip and knee joint replacements. In fact, the technology is becoming so used that by 2027, millions of people will be mobile with the help of 3D-printed items. And as more materials are created, the more widespread these printed body parts will be.
“For the medical and dental industry, additive manufacturing relies on the flexibility and possibility found in materials — meaning, how quickly you can build something you need to use?” explained Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., Chief Operating Officer for Infinite™ Material Solutions. “Each body is different, so anything specific to the human body needs to be customized. Additive manufacturing fits the bill for mass customization.”
3D printed parts are also finding their way into operating rooms around the world in ways most people never realize. “We can create custom-built trays with materials that can be sterilized for the operating room, and have a space for the scalpel, tweezer, and any other tool the surgeon uses,” explained Doerr.
3D printing can also be used to create surgical robot end-effectors, helping to facilitate procedures such as gallbladder removal or kidney transplants. Bioprinting may be one of the newest technologies, but it brings with it some of the farthest-reaching health and wellness implications. Bioprinted tissue can be used for human implantation, or to create models used for study and research to help understand, treat, or eradicate diseases like cancer.
Dental innovations & applications
Dental applications for 3D printing are advancing, too, particularly as new processes and materials emerge. For example, teenagers around the world are rejoicing in their ability to use removable, clear 3D-printed aligners rather than traditional wired braces. Older generations also have a better smile; theirs are thanks to digital technology, which can streamline the production of dentures. With 3D printing, dentures can be produced quickly, more accurately, and at a lower cost.
Prosthetics, orthotics, models, and eyewear
FFF technology is also leveling up the ability to print prosthetics and orthotics with commonly used materials, such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polypropylene (PP), nylon, polyether ether ketone ketone (PEKK), and polyether ether ketone (PEEK). This wide material compatibility facilitates design freedom and flexibility for better print fidelity and fit.
In addition, water-soluble support materials, like the family of AquaSys® products, make it possible to create more intricate and detailed models, and also opens up the possibilities for new models that enable more immersive training, education, and use.
FFF and related technologies are also enabling the faster production of surgical guides, instrument molds, patient-specific anatomical models, and even eyewear frames and lenses.
Although AM offers widespread applications in the medical and dental fields, healthcare is also one of the most highly regulated of all industries. As Doerr explains, dental innovations are subject to one set of regulations, while surgical equipment and implanted devices must pass stricter compliance rules. There’s also the importance of classification — is a printed part a product or a medical device? The definition will impact which agencies will provide governance and oversight, how quickly it can be approved for use — and how that use is regulated.
What’s next in additive manufacturing for dental and medical
Across all industries that leverage AM, healthcare is the fastest-growing segment. As new materials are created, and use cases are presented, the possibilities for what healthcare can achieve will continue to grow.
For example, Infinite Material Solutions has created Caverna™ PP, a polypropylene filament that features a water-soluble phase and creates a co-continuous microporous morphology. The final structure of Caverna PP can resemble a sponge, bone, or filter, and this unique build material has the potential for many applications in the medical and dental industry, including tissue scaffolds and high-tech filters.
“We may soon see materials printed with Caverna in operating rooms, and even to treat burns because it doesn’t allow moisture to get in, but allows the area to receive air and breathe," explained Doerr.
The future of medicine will undoubtedly include more applications for bioprinting, and the use of bio-ink is currently being evaluated and tested for new use cases, such as organ transplants, bone and skin grafting, and cornea implants.
From the ability to print human lungs to the wizardry of smart robots helping with surgery, the medical and dental industry has long been an early adopter of new technology. Additive manufacturing is a natural extension of this innovation, giving healthcare providers the tools and processes they need to promote longevity, health, and wellness for individuals around the world.
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