Contrary to popular perception, additive manufacturing has actually existed as a technology for decades – since the early 1980s in fact. Its origins lay in the rapid production of prototypes for the industrial products industry – an area that is still a great stronghold. However, researchers have in recent years applied this technology to great effect across a number of other industries, reaping the benefits in new and innovative ways. The medical sector is one of these and healthcare and biological applications now represent around 14% of the global additive manufacturing market; the third largest market behind aerospace and industrial manufacturing. In fiscal terms, the latest figures indicate that this equated to $354.5m in 2012, but the figure is set to rise to $965.5m by 2019. Tapping into this trend, however, is no mean feat and manufacturers need to forge strong and informed partnerships to harness the full potential of this new technology in an increasingly global marketplace.
Head, shoulders, knees AND toes
While the 3D printed human body may be some way away, real world applications can be seen in the increasing use of additive manufacturing in the production of artificial body parts, particularly prosthetics.
At a basic level, the concept is based on the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer. This differs from traditional subtractive manufacturing methodologies, where a design is shaped by removing material from a central mass. This new approach has huge implications on the level of detail, accuracy and variation that can now be achieved for prosthetics and implants throughout the body.
From the patient perspective, it is now possible to manufacture highly customised and printed versions of amputees’ prostheses; whether this is a range geared toward specific activities like running or cycling, or tailored to fashion lines. Additive manufacturing is also being used in the production of artificial joints such as hip and knee replacements – and there are benefits here as a result of the highly customized implants that can be created. Advantages of these highly advanced prostheses include better clinical outcomes for patients (through comfort and pain reduction), reduced hospital stays (due to reduced recovery periods) and more expedient surgical procedures (because personalised implants require fewer adjustments during surgery).
The knee is the largest and one of the most complicated joints in our body. However, conventional systems used for knee replacements are standardized by various manufacturers and are simple approximations of patients’ joints. These estimations are based on knee anatomy data collected in a specific geography, with adjustments made during the surgical procedure.
Of course, standardized implants still help patients lead an active or semi-active lifestyle, but in many cases, patients face complications and pain after surgery as a result of the imperfect fit. However, the introduction of 3D printing has enabled the production of highly personalized systems and these have become increasingly appealing to manufacturers as the process is also exponentially faster.
This personalized approach results in improved patient satisfaction. This is because all designs are unique to the patient, based on factors like their age and bone density, their disorder, the type of surgery or surgeon’s preferences, even the patient’s anatomy and lifestyle. The result is an almost perfect fit, with uniform stress distribution, and better load bearing capacity. This personalization also helps the surgeon perform cuts in the bone and soft tissue exactly where they need to be. Therefore, minimal adjustments in surgery are required, in comparison to the previous standardized alternatives.
Taking on the world… together
The highly complex and detailed customization that additive manufacturing can provide, has resulted in a real drive and demand for the technology. This could rapidly become the future of the manufacture of prosthetics, both internal and external. But how can manufacturers realize this potential and use it to overcome the challenges in supplying to a global market?
Effective and comprehensive management of the supply chain is crucial. Strategic partnerships with vendors who possess the necessary medical and additive manufacturing expertise on a global scale lie at the heart of this.
Looking at the previously discussed example of personalized knee systems, there are key areas where a vendor partnership like this can facilitate production and global distribution. Specialist capabilities in design and development and access to experienced concurrent engineers can help to ensure the quality of the end product. In the case of personalized knee systems, this manifests itself in highly specialized design software specifically tailored to crafting detailed made-to-fit products. With access to global supplier networks, and by aiding with efficient supply chain management, vendors can also help manufacturers break down cultural barriers and manufacture at more competitive prices. On the other side of the coin, harnessing this global network can equally provide new opportunities on the customer side as well.
Printing the future
Further progression on the technology itself will depend on increased research on the range of materials and combinations with which manufacturers can print. Even if we are some way away from recreating body parts of the greatest complexity, perhaps the most exciting area for development is bioprinting, extending the principles used in custom prosthetics to living tissue. The combination of the two could place 3D printing at the cutting edge of progression in the medical industry. Though this technology is still in its infancy, it has a strong foundation for use in healthcare. What is most exciting is that the true limits of what can be achieved with additive manufacturing are yet to be explored.