How 3D Printing Is Transforming Healthcare

by Sohini Bagchi    Dec 17, 2014


Three Dimensional (3D) printing is like a bubble to the average person. He or she does not know or rather care what the technology is. Then why are we talking about it? That’s because experts tout 3D printing as the ‘next big thing’ in technology that’s set to transform many industries. One area where 3D printing holds limitless potential is healthcare – an industry which is constantly reinventing itself to remain relevant. Over the last few years, it has already brought some noticeable changes in the healthcare landscape.

Let us consider a few examples:

Researchers at Harvard University are making progress in bioprinting blood vessels, a crucial step towards printing tissues with a blood supply.

The University of Toronto, in collaboration with Autodesk Research and CBM Canada, used 3D printing to quickly produce cheap and easily customizable prosthetic sockets for patients in Uganda

A group of researchers in China and the US have printed models of cancerous tumors to aid discovery of new anti-cancer drugs and to better understand how tumors develop, grow, and spread.

James Yoo at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the US has developed a printer that can print skin straight onto the wounds of burn victims. 

- Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London have “developed a new use for 3D printing, to create personalized replica models of cancerous parts of the body to allow doctors to target tumors more precisely.

These are just some of the few and recent examples of how 3D printing is proving to be a gamechanger in the world of medicine.

Wikipedia defines 3D printing, also known as rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, as a process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material.

While many argue that 3D printing has been there since 1980s, researchers believe that it has begun to show results only in recent years. In healthcare, it is working wonders and is often being used to create everything from knee cartilage to new drugs for treating cancer and a fully-functioning liver too in the coming years.

The prices of PC and mobile devices are dropping, so I anticipate the overall price of 3D printers will also stabilize.
-Dr. Sujit Kumar Ghosh, medical professor and senior researcher at KPC Medical College And Hospital, Kolkata

Research firm TechNavio’s analysts forecast the global 3D printing market in the healthcare industry is growing rapidly at a CAGR of 14.52 percent during the period 2013-2018. The research firm notes that the global 3D bioprinting market is in its developing phase and only a few companies such as 3D Systems, Envision, Stratasys and 3D Biotek, among others have established dominance in this domain. (Click here to know TechNavio’s Top 10 Global 3D Printing companies)

The market started evolving in developed countries in the US and Europe but has immense opportunity to grow in emerging countries, like India, Brazil and Indonesia in the coming years, believe TechNavio analysts.

3D printing for medical applications is actually quite unique when compared to other popular industries such as aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics. That’s because of the human element present in healthcare applications, where the objective is to save a life and improve the quality of services.

Everything is Customized

Customization is the primary reason for the growing interest in 3D printing. “The biggest advantage of 3D is that everything is customizable,” states Markus Fromherz, Xerox’s chief innovation officer in healthcare in a Forbes article. He believes nothing can be more effective than the highly customized and personalized  3D printing approach that makes even replacement of body parts a more simple, fast, and less expensive process than any other approaches.

“3D printing is providing remarkable results in planning complex, life-changing surgeries,” says Joydeep Dasgupta, ‎Medical Researcher and Advisor at Ghaziabad’s Yashodha Super Speciality Hospitals.

Over the last one year or so, 3D printing was successfully used in a number of life-changing surgeries, including replacing an upper jaw, forming a new skull, spinal-fusion surgery, and heel and hip implants, he states. 

“Customized orthopedic implants, for example, perform much better, and their use dramatically reduces surgery times,” says Jennifer Taylor, pharmaceutical industry analyst at Visiongain, another research firm that predicts the 3D printing market for healthcare will generate more than $4 billion by 2018, a four-fold jump from 2013.


Secondly, with 3D printing, medical experts can produce low–cost prosthetic parts. Creating traditional prosthetics is very time-consuming and destructive, in that any modifications to the prosthetics would destroy the original molds. “3D-printed medical models can reduce surgery times. Surgery costs $100 per minute. As well as resulting in substantial cost-savings, the use of 3D-printed medical implants reduces the risks associated with anesthesia during long surgeries,” says Taylor.

Thirdly, it helps in the discovery of life-saving drugs. Progress is already being made in this direction as Louisiana Technical University researchers have printed biocompatible, biodegradable devices for delivering bone cancer medicines.

Finally, one of the most inspiring outcomes from the rapid expansion of 3D-printed medical solutions is the ability to help patients who previously had little hope for treatment. Whether due to financial obstacles or the unique circumstances of a condition, millions of people across the globe are unable to undergo critical surgeries. Now, in some cases, 3D printing is helping remove those obstacles.

Researchers believe with enhanced tailor-made sensors and other technologies, 3D printing market in healthcare will be more advanced. For example, a team of researchers led by Dr. Jennifer Lewis at Harvard University have already demonstrated a biological 3D printer and a set of inks that makes it possible to rapidly print thick tissues riddled with blood vessels. In this work, they’ve printed tissues that exceed one millimeter thick, but they envision creating much thicker tissues using this approach. 

Read more: Getting Ready For A 3D Printing Future

At present, some electronic sensors can detect oxygenation detectors, heart strain and temperature, the next step is to enhance the electronics with multiple sensors, including those that measure acidic conditions to detect blocked arteries. Going forward, scanned 3D data will be used to create, replace everything, from ear cartilage, to heart valve and from promoting the growth of bone and synthetic skin.

In other words, 3D printing can be regarded as one of the many revolutionary technologies currently being used in healthcare. 


Training, Cost Barriers

While 3D printing has immense potential to transform the industry, the high cost of 3D printing hampers its implementation into everyday practice. According to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business, high-resolution printers cost anywhere between $40,000 and $1 million. In emerging countries like India deploying a 3D printer may then remain a distant dream for most healthcare companies. As Dasgupta notes, “In the era of increasing restraint on medical costs, the real issue is money… but who’s going to pay for it.”

Read more: Cost, The Key Deterring Factor In 3D Printing

However, many believe that the price of printing will come down. “The number of printers out there is increasing and so is the utility. The software is also becoming more advanced. Moreover, the prices of PC and mobile devices are dropping, so I anticipate the overall price of 3D printers will also stabilize,” argues Dr. Sujit Kumar Ghosh, a medical professor and senior researcher at KPC Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata.

He sees the greatest potential for 3D printing in areas of healthcare including education, training and research as well as to patients and their families.”

No wonder then that research firm Gartner estimates these technologies to reach maturity not before the next 5 years. In its latest Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, Gartner predicts that the next major wave of adoption will be in the enterprise and medical applications over the next two to five years (as shown in the image below).


(Source: Gartner {till July 2014})

Therefore, it may take some more time for 3D printing to hit the mainstream, with experts even predicting that some promising experiments haven’t left the lab yet. However, it cannot be denied that 3D printing will accelerate once it attains some level of maturity.

Other challenges

Some of the other challenges are also hindering its adoption. As Mark Schonfeld, a partner at Burns & Levinson, and a legal insurance expert mentions in a blog, “If 3D printing enables production of, say, just 100 hip implants or 100 hearing aids, such work will generally take place outside of a traditional mass-production factory, which is subject to government regulation and inspection,” he says.

To protect themselves and their clients, Schonfeld advises insurers to keep abreast of technological developments, consult with a creative and knowledgeable attorney about how to address liability exposure, and adjust existing policies to be fair to consumers and prevent injury to the insurance company.

Then, there are ethical concerns about any new treatment, including the use of 3D printing, is how we can test that the treatment is safe and effective before it is offered as a clinical treatment.

Professor Susan Dodds, co-author of the e-book ‘3D Bioprinting: Printing Parts for Bodies’ indicates that in the future, 3D printing may be used in combination with stem cell derived cell lines. This could lead to the development of printed functioning organs that can replace a patient’s damaged organ, but without the risk or rejection associated with donor organs, because it uses that patient’s own cells.

Researchers combining 3D printing with personalized stem cell therapies will need to develop new models for testing their treatments for safety and effectiveness, Dodds advised in her book.

While there are challenges ahead, Dr. Michael Patton, Co-founder and CEO of Texas-based Medical Innovation Labs believes that 3D printing is here to stay only with the help of standardized bodies and greater collaboration with the industry. “With better standards, expertise and maturity, 3D printing is already showing some results and will continue to transform the healthcare landscape over the coming years.”

With better standards, expertise and maturity, 3D printing is already showing some results and will continue to transform the healthcare landscape over the coming years.
-Michael Patton, Co-founder and CEO, Medical Innovation Labs

Experts believe, while 3D printing is not yet mainstream, especially in the Indian healthcare system, it is increasingly gaining acceptance in the country. A report by market research firm 6W Research predicts the 3D printer market in India to reach $46 million by the year 2019 and $79 million by 2021. Low costs of production, increasing awareness and penetration, and advancements in material research such as custom-made medical products like tissues, orthopedic and dental implants, prosthetic devices, medicines and so on is expected to drive the demand for 3D printing technology in healthcare and medicine in the coming years.

As of 2013, electronics application leads the 3D printing market (24.1 percent) followed by automotive (21.2 percent), medical (15 percent), industrial (13.8 percent), and aerospace (10.8 percent), suggesting there’s huge potential to explore, innovative and develop new solutions in this area. Good news is, in less than a decade’s time, it might be possible to print new human organs when our organs are damaged or diseased.  

To summarize, while the use of 3D printers is still in its early stages, factors such as low overall cost, high degree of customization and speedy and efficient results, will make it  a game-changing force in the healthcare industry.

(Image source: Thinkstock)