Three-dimensional printing turns fiction into medical reality

Three-dimensional printing—sometimes called additive manufacturing—uses millions of coordinates to deposit small amounts of material in specific areas based on a computer-aided design (CAD). While the technology dates back to the mid-1980s, it’s only been in the past several years that its potential has come to the forefront, especially in the health care environment. Indeed, 3D printing has successfully replicated everything from personalized prosthetics to complex blood vessels and even a “designer” pill that combines several medications with timed releases.

Rendering of a 3D printed medical device resembling scissor handles with a medical device extending from the shears.

But one of its most significant impacts in health care is in the area of “traditional prototyping,” (meaning, the process leading to designing medical devices). According to Mohit Prajapati, director of Research & Development and Strategic Initiatives at the Penn Center for Health Care Innovation, this process can be long and expensive. Surgeons work directly with manufacturing companies on multiple iterations of a potential design, incorporating small changes to bring it closer to the desired final design. “Each prototype would be made from stainless steel or other bio-compatible material, which could take several weeks to make—and cost thousands of dollars,” Prajapati said. “And nobody even knows if it’s going to work.”

As part of the Center’s Acceleration Lab, Prajapati has worked with several physicians in this capacity, translating their qualitative descriptions into CAD specifications which, in turn, led to a computer-generated model in plastic. “It’s a physical representation of the real instrument—the exact size and shape,” he said. “A surgeon can see how it works or even if it works. We make 3D models until they’re sure they have it right.” At that point, the final model is made in titanium steel or another material.

Usually, designing an instrument requires multiple iterations before reaching the final, approved version. A working prototype in stainless steel costs between $5,000 and $10,000, and it could take weeks to produce, depending on the manufacturer’s availability. With 3D printing, the prototypes would be around $100 each and completed within days.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.