The market for 3D printing in healthcare industries is booming. Currently valued at USD 2.4 billion, this number is set to increase to USD 5.1 billion by 2026 at a compound annual growth rate of 16.3% in estimation.
Innovations in the field have led to widespread commercial and consumer adoption of 3D printing technology in Singapore and around the world.
3D printers can be used to create prosthetic limbs, implants, and other medical devices, leading to improvements in healthcare at every level, from hospitals to home environments.
Still, there are plenty of other ways that 3D printing technology can adapt and evolve in the medical field, especially with more firms in Singapore adopting 3D printing.
Let’s look at some of the commonly used 3D printing applications and how they might affect patients going forward.
The Present State of Medical 3D Printing
3D printing technology is currently being applied in the following medical areas:
1. Surgical Instruments
Surgeons frequently use specialised surgical tools that may be difficult to obtain due to high demand and a costly price tag.
Using medical 3D printing, doctors can custom-make these specialised medical instruments for individual patients and order as many as they need– eliminating patient wait times and expensive equipment costs.
2. Medical Models & Prototypes
Printing customised medical models for diagnosis is one of several possible medical uses for 3D printing.
If your symptoms are vague, doctors can scan your body with a CT or MRI scanner to generate a three-dimensional image that they can then print into a model prototype.
This way, you’ll have a replica that you and your doctor can study more closely. From there, your doctor can make changes to your medical plans until symptoms alleviate.
The model can also act as a presurgical model to help doctors identify and preplan surgical procedures as the way a disease manifests in the body is unique to every individual. This helps to reduce the risk and time of the operation.
These models can also be used as an education tool to teach medical students due to the scarcity of cadavers with specific diseases/parts and no readily avaliable one-model-fits-all product.
3D printing has proven to be particularly useful during the recent Covid-19 Pandemic. In a recent case study, Q & M Dental group engaged Creatz3D for help creating manikins of the nasopharynx area for a tactile teaching tool to accelerate learning and understanding of swabbing procedures.
In the words of Joseph Lua, an associate at Q & M Dental group, “Our focus was to find models with a cross-sectional view of the nose area, so that we could teach learners about specific anatomical landmarks and what to watch out for while swabbing. We wanted a model that could let us explain procedures effortlessly to a non-medical trained person.”
A life-sized, cross-section manikin was created by Creatz3D within a highly efficient turnaround time of 5 days to high effectiveness. While Q & M had previously sought models elsewhere, they lacked the distinct anatomical features, and colour differentiation provided by 3D printed models.
3. Implants and Bone Replacements
One application of 3D printed objects in medicine is to use them as bone replacements.
Because bones require precise dimensions, shapes, and surface features, they are challenging to fit on a specific individual. This reality means that many current bone replacements are ineffective because they don’t properly conform to an individual’s body.
In addition, 3D printing technology has also been used to create customised implants such as tibial plates and femoral condyles, used in replacement knee surgeries. Unlike standard prosthetics, these implants are modeled based on the patient’s CT scan, meaning that each implant created is almost a replica of the original. Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine have also used a 3D printer to create artificial knee cartilage for people with osteoarthritis, demonstrating that it is possible to generate 3D printed objects that fit an individual’s unique needs more effectively than generic parts can.
4. Personalised Healthcare Plans
3D printing firms in Singapore will soon allow doctors to create specialised tools and implants specific to a patient’s needs.
For example, an individual who lost part of his arm due to an accident can be fitted with a prosthetic limb made to match his body perfectly—down to his skin colour and textures.
The technology will also allow doctors to create personalised medical devices such as stents and heart valves for emergencies.
It may even lead to new ways for pharmacists and doctors to deliver drugs and vaccines, thanks to 3D printing’s potential capacity to deliver microparticles through pills or intravenously.
Patients will likely soon have access to custom hearing aids, dentures, casts, and even cancer treatments tailored just for them.
While the potential for 3D printing in medical fields is evident, there is still a low level of 3D technology adoption in the field. This can be attributed to reasons such as the lack of appropriate regulations for medical 3D printing. According to Professor Chua Chee Kai, the head of the Engineering Product Development at SUTD, “Regulations often have the tendency to lag behind innovation, thus causing serious bottlenecks in the mass adoption of 3D printed medical devices. I believe that strong regulatory frameworks must be established first in order to gain greater confidence and wider adoption of 3D-printed medical devices.”
It is the hope that more comprehensive standards will be introduced to make adoption of 3D technology smoother and easier in the medical industry.
The Future of 3D Printing Technology in the Medical Field
More exciting and innovative outcomes will arise as an increasing number of doctors and researchers learn to work with 3D printing technologies.
Thanks to 3D printing prototype technology, doctors have produced models of patient organs that allow surgeons to plan tricky surgeries before entering the operating room.
Beyond mere models, the rise of bioprinting will allow medical experts to print biological material or bioinks, which involve the use of human or mammalian cells to mimic specific tissues in target and function. This will lead to a wide range of different applications that will likely change the future of medical science and practice. Bioprinting will only continue to grow as technologies increase in sophistication.
Researchers are experimenting with intricate medical prosthetics to restore function for people who have suffered devastating injuries as well as people in developing countries with disabilities.
All these applications are still in development or used only by professionals. However, as technology advances and costs come down, it will be increasingly feasible for regular consumers to print their own medical supplies at home using low-cost materials like plastic filament.