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How does 3D printing work?

3D printing is part of the innovative process called additive manufacturing, which means the production of three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The printer uses a kind of layering process, by which one layer is added after the other until you have a fully formed object. It allows designers and engineers to create complex parts for cars, machines or airplanes much cheaper and in much less time than any other production method. Currently, rapid technological development enables start-ups and other companies to bring 3D printers out of factories into smaller businesses and even people’s homes.


Medical equipment quickly and in a cheap way

3D printing splints, medical models used before surgeries or other necessary means for healing could result in saving huge amounts of money. And there are already brilliant examples on the market how to do it!

a) Finger splints

Ian McHale, a senior at the US Steinert High School created a blueprint for producing finger splints. A low-end 3D printer can print his splint quickly and affordably, about 2¢ worth of ABS plastic in about ten minutes! For developing countries, where splints can often be ordered from oversees only in bulk, it could mean the cheapest solution for poor communities. At the same time, it could easily serve personal needs.
b) Tumor models

3D printing can also help medical research as well as the outcome of complex operations and especially difficult cases. Researchers in China and the US have both 3D printed models of cancerous tumors to aid discovery of new anti–cancer drugs and to better understand how tumors develop, grow, and spread.
c) Organ models

Researchers have also used scans of animal hearts to create printed models, and then added stretchy electronics on top of those models. The material can be peeled off the printed model and wrapped around the real heart for a perfect fit. The next step is to enhance the electronics with multiple sensors.

How 3D printed medical equipment saves lives

Kaiba Gionfriddo was born prematurely in 2011. After 8 months his lung development caused concerns, although he was sent home with his parents as his breathing was normal. Six weeks later, Kaiba stopped breathing and turned blue. He was diagnosed with tracheobronchomalacia, a long Latin word that means his windpipe was so weak that it collapsed. He had a tracheostomy and was put on a ventilator––the conventional treatment. Still, Kaiba would stop breathing almost daily. His heart would stop, too. His caregivers 3D printed a bioresorbable device that instantly helped Kaiba breathe.

Plastic 3D printed implants

Not only prosthetics, but also implants could be 3D printed in a personalized way. This is especially important in complex and rare cases, such as the following. Dutch surgeons replaced the entire top of a 22 year–old woman’s skull with a customized printed implant made from plastic. The unnamed 22-year-old patient was suffering from a rare condition that caused the inside of her skull to grow extra bone, which squeezed her brain. The growth was discovered after she reported severe headaches and then lost her sight and motor control. If untreated, the extra bone would have killed her.
Personalized plaster casts

3D printing casts could finally transform the experience of breaking a bone. In 2014, designers have experimented with 3D printed wrist braces which they printed in an open shape, then bended on the wrist of the patient after heating in hot water. I also came across the invention of a Dutch student named Pieter Smakman, who created a scanner using cheap laser pointers, 32 cameras, and a Raspberry Pi computer. His system is able to precisely digitize the hand and fingers and may also help in fitting prosthetic devices to each individual patient.

Low-Cost Prosthetic Parts

Globally, over 30 million people need mobility devices such as prosthetics, while 80 percent of the world’s amputees do not have access to modern prosthetics. However, creating traditional prosthetics is very time–consuming and destructive, which means that any modifications would destroy the original molds. Researchers at 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 the developing world.


Professor Susmita Bose of Washington State University modified a 3D printer to bind chemicals to a ceramic powder creating intricate ceramic scaffolds that promote the growth of the bone in any shape. It helps hip and knee replacements last longer through developing a body-friendly calcium phosphate-based coating for the implant materials. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded her a $1.8 million grant that will enable her team to continue refining the coating and improve the way in which implants integrate into the body. Once integrated, the coated implants are expected to last longer – possibly doubling the life of cemented implants.

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The future of pharma: 3D printed drugs

Last year, the FDA just approved an epilepsy drug called Spritam that is made by 3D printers. It prints out the powdered drug layer by layer to make it dissolve faster than average pills. Imagine how fast the distribution of medication could be with a 3D printer in every second or third pharmacy! Or imagine how different our attitude towards drugs of pharmacies would be, if we could print out drugs at homes on our own 3D printers!



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