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3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing) is the method of creating physical objects from a digital file by adding multiple layers of a material, or multiple materials to build a single structure.

uses of 3D printing in medicine include:

Customised prosthetics and implants
Anatomical models for surgical planning and education
Pharmaceutical research including drug dosage forms and discovery
Tissue and organ fabrication
Personalized medical products and equipment


These anatomical models are often used in patient communication and consultation to show and explain to patients about their medical conditions and what their surgical procedures will involve.

They also have use in surgical education, providing medical students and junior doctors the opportunity to exactly see tumours, fractures, lesions and other abnormalities

3D Custom implants

Models of the patient’s anatomy can be used to support making a standard implant custom, e.g. bending plates, sizing stents. Custom implants, also known as ‘patient specific implants’ or PSIs are used by surgeons in complex cases where a standard implant is not appropriate for the case. These implants are designed and made for an individual patient, tailored to their anatomy and surgical needs.

Medical device prototyping

Used for many years in manufacturing, 3D printing is currently revolutionizing medical device prototyping.

Now, small and large companies alike can rapidly design, test and engineer multiple device prototypes in days or weeks rather than months/years.

The ability for a product designer to see their physical design in hours rather than months has increased the rate of testing, adapting and fine tuning the most effective functions.

This reduced development lifecycle of devices reduces the overall cost, increases the number of test periods, leading to iterative improvements and increased device safety, and ultimately gives the company competitive advantage.

When a design has been finalized - depending on the expectation for future product adaption requirements, tooling can be traditionally manufactured or can be 3D printed.

Custom devices & prosthetics

This matched with the growing availability of 3D printing, has sprouted a number of companies and non-profit organisations, making use of 3D printing to produce parts to improve people's standard of life.

One of earliest was the e-NABLE Community made of a network of volunteers across the world all devoting time and engineering resource to create free 3D printed prosthetics.

This "lower cost approach to a highly valued item" ethos has made its way into a number of commercial entities, with Handsmith & Open Bionics both adding bionic capabilities to their custom devices.

When considering what printing technology and what materials to use for prosthetics design and manufacture there are three main considerations that should be taken into account

Mechanical properties of materials
Custom devices go though a number of extreme forces during day to day wear and appropriate mechanical properties should be taken into account for this. Nylon based materials and tough polymers are commonly used.

Biocompatibility of materials
If the device makes direct contact with the skin for prolonged periods of time ensure that the materials used are biocompatible or bio-inert

3D Printer accuracy
Perfect fit for a patient means a more comfortable device and improved standard of life. Fine detailed anatomy such as maxillofacial reconstruction should use as high an accuracy as possible when choosing technology, for parts with larger tolerances, like prosthetic cups, a slightly lower accuracy may be suitable.

When deciding upon a 3D printer for medical models, ascertain first what the model will be used for as this determines the type of printer required - SLA, SLS, FDM, etc.

For example: Surgical Educational, Visualization, Pre-operative planning, Drilling and Cutting.

The intended use of the 3D printed product determines what material should be used.

PLA & ABS is low cost material, good for visualizing and good for rapid prototyping.

Photopolymer resin is suitable for visualization, cutting and drilling. It is highly effective for combining different colours and can print to 25 microns. Materials can be bio-compatible.

Nylon provides high strength and stiffness and is a great material for prototypes and manufacturing, Material is bio-compatible and is more suitable for 3D printing complex parts.

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FDM (fused deposition modeling) was the first mainstream desktop technology introduced to the market and as a result, is one of the most widely used technologies today.

The technology uses a solid spool of plastic material (typically PLA or ABS) which is uncoiled during the printing process into a heated printer nozzle.

The technology uses a solid spool of plastic material (typically PLA or ABS) which is uncoiled during the printing process into a heated printer nozzle to make it molten.



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