3D printing is a disruptive technology in the medical device industry. There are a variety of 3D printing methods to create metal and plastic parts for medical devices and clinical use. Each method involves fabricating a part one layer at a time by applying layers of liquid material onto various substrates.
Biocompatible and drug-contact materials help 3D printing technologies produce customized medical devices. 3D printing also makes simultaneous production of multiple individualized items possible. This improves manufacturing efficiency while conserving time and energy.
New 3D technologies combined with ever-expanding choices in printing materials and applications are creating trends in the medical device industry and even in clinical research.
3D Printing Trends in Medical Devices
Dental laboratories and hearing aid manufacturers already use 3D printing technology to mass-produce customized medical devices. 3D printing also enables the development of groundbreaking concepts and procedures in preclinical studies of material science, toxicology, neuroimaging and other disciplines. Other trends for 3D printing in medical devices include external wearable devices, clinical study devices and specialty implants.
External Wearable Devices
Because of its ability to produce customized devices that are both lightweight and strong, 3D printing will revolutionize wearable mechanical braces. Made for external use, these devices can be much larger or thicker than surgically implanted devices, overcoming any mechanical strength issues presented by three-dimensional printing.
3D Systems unveiled its 3D printed Bespoke Braces™ for young people with idiopathic scoliosis in June 2014. It uses selective laser sintering technology to create comfortable, flexible, durable braces.
Clinical Study Devices
Clinical researchers will increasingly turn to 3D printing in feasibility and first-in-human studies where low build quantities and postevaluation design changes are likely. Reducing both costs and development time, 3D printing is fast replacing injection molds for manufacturing devices with multiple plastic components. 3D printing also helps scientists conduct validation and pivotal studies with large patient study sizes earlier by making large numbers of pieces available quickly, ideally while other components of the study are still under development.
NovaScan utilized 3D printing to develop a disposable patient-contacting tip and reusable hand piece used during breast cancer detection.
3D printing will continue pushing orthopedic and dental device manufacturing forward. There are a number of companies using 3D printing technology to create implants with intricate surface textures or requiring complex geometry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to approve these devices for implant. For example, the FDA gave 510(k) clearance to the German company joimax for 3D printed spine implants.
Other companies are following suit. Researchers in China introduced the first 3D printed sternum in July 2015. Knee replacement specialists ConforMIS recently introduced their own 3D printed custom joint implants.
Using direct metal printing technology, 3D Systems created a titanium alloy acetabular cup with a porous surface. Additive manufacturing with 3D printing allows manufacturers to control effective porosity and thickness of materials to improve fixation of orthopedic implants in the bone.
The use of 3D printing will continue to grow in the medical device industry. Metal additive manufacturing will adopt three-dimensional printing for the commercial production of orthopedic implants. These printed medical devices will also propel the development of customizable external device components with low load-bearing components. 3D printing will also be essential in clinical study applications to reduce cost and shorten research time.
3D printing will use an ever-growing number of materials to make medical devices; therefore, the development of new printable materials will shape trends in the evolution of 3D printing for medical devices and research.
Clinical researchers and those in the medical device industry are embracing 3D printing for a number of applications ranging from true medical devices to clinical use. 3D printing continues to give researchers and those in the medical device industry new ways to think about creating groundbreaking and disruptive medical technologies.