Recently, we’ve seen a lot of talk around the topic of the healthcare industry still being in the midst of stabilizing inventory and recovering from the post-pandemic peak. When resources were being drained rapidly due to the increased demand onset by the COVID-19 pandemic — hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other healthcare providers were forced to develop solutions quickly to maintain adequate safety measures for their staff and patients alike.

This last year is just one proof point of how additive manufacturing (AM) is shaping the narrative around health. While AM brings speed and efficiency along with the option of an alternative supply chain, it also brings the ability to create a bespoke approach to patient care.

Why Adaptability Is Crucial

Additive manufacturing, otherwise frequently referred to as 3D printing, was instrumental in assisting businesses to quickly pivot their manufacturing services to personal protective equipment (PPE) at scale during the peak of this unprecedented period of time. The ability to respond quickly and adapt to the current landscape makes AM an ideal solution to produce parts that are in short supply, either due to a surge in demand or as a result of supply chain disruption. When patient morphologies or supply deviate from the understood norm, the adaptability of 3D printing is crucial.

The manufacturing time for a 3D printed product can be as soon as a couple of hours, and depending on the application, this method could be quite faster than other methods of production. When it comes to developing prototypes for new medical devices, 3D printing can not only be much faster, it can also be cost-effective to manufacture products.

With AM, supply can be determined based on the day’s current demand or by printing “as needed” — leading to increased efficiency, by reducing the amount of wasted product. There are also greater technical capabilities with 3D printing being able to produce lightweight, lattice-type structures, compared to injection molding manufacturing.1

Materials Usage In AM

AM’s unique ability to utilize various polymer and metal materials is significant in medical device manufacturing. With the varying properties of each filament, engineers can develop customized options for their end users. For example, materials like nylon and titanium are ideal for use in healthcare production due to their biocompatibility.2

Custom orthotics created with additive manufacturing by Forecast 3D for FitMyFoot.

Throughout the past couple of decades, engineers and scientists have also been researching the possibility of using organ cells and tissues in additive manufacturing. With this research, the industry is working towards the ability to 3D print new organs for transplants.

The applications of this technology would lead to the availability of custom-made organs, derived from patient’s own cells and tissues. These manufacturing breakthroughs would in turn lead to a significant decrease in the rejection rate of organ transplants.3 This research shows the potential future possibilities of 3D printing in the healthcare field.

Custom Applications of AM

The AM process has immense value when it comes to creating patient-specific solutions. Each 3D printed item can be developed to precise specifications for patients who require a custom-fitted device. These medical devices range anywhere in complexity from anatomically correct models for complex surgeries to custom-made arch-supporting shoe inserts.

Nasopharyngeal swabs created by Forecast 3D.

One type of custom solution that has been developed using 3D printing are life-sized anatomical prototypes — not to be confused with 3D printing of actual organs. These 3D models are used as tools for complicated surgeries and educational opportunities for medical students.

Utilizing these resources as diagrams, doctors can gain a better visual understanding while preparing for patient treatments. This can be especially useful in surgeries that are not routinely performed — or even when comparing the physiology of an adult to a child for determining surgical procedures.2

An example of a custom AM hybrid-solution product would be FitMyFoot’s arch support insoles. Doctors and engineers identified the arch as being the most valuable component of shoe support inserts; so they set forth in identifying a way to custom build a product specific to the recipient.

Their solution was a combination of a stock injection-molded piece for the bottom layer, with the 3D printed arch support being manufactured for the top layer. This unique approach digitally maps each foot, using over 200 points to create a 3D printable file unique to each individual foot.4

Other Capabilities of AM

Alternatively, sometimes the need for mass production outweighs customization. During a disruption brought on by natural disasters, pandemics, or even foreign conflicts, AM has the ability to quickly produce products for consumer use without supply chain disruption. Rapid prototyping processes were initially created to enable a component to be produced in a matter of hours, which would be much faster than other manufacturing processes that took multiple days. 2A great example of this type of manufacturing being put into action was when AM specialists all over the world were able to help quickly meet the urgent needs of healthcare professionals and medical device providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early last year, Forecast 3D participated in a consortium with healthcare partners to leverage rapid prototyping to develop and distribute nasopharyngeal swabs on a large scale in as few as eight weeks. At this moment, the company is able to mass-produce up to 100,000 swabs per day with Multi Jet Fusion, using a fleet of industrial-grade HP Jet Fusion 3D printing systems.5 This mass production of swabs helped better prepare healthcare workers in their ability to test for respiratory viruses.

AM has a broad spectrum of applications. Not only do the technological advancements over the last couple of decades provide the ability to adapt quickly in high-pressure situations, but 3D printing also empowers the healthcare field to continue pushing the envelope of innovation when it comes to patient-centered care.

References

  1. Gayette, M., “Top Ten Advantages of Additive Manufacturing.PTC, 13 Dec. 2019.
  2. Intro to Additive Manufacturing: Materials and Performance.
  3. Yasinski, E. “On the Road to 3-D Printed Organs.The Scientist Magazine®, 26 Feb. 2020.
  4. Hayford, R. “Customized Production With 3D Printing.FORECAST 3D, 10 Dec. 2020.
  5. Lang, A. “Behind the Scenes of FORECAST 3D’s 1 Millionth Nasal Swab Production.GKN Powder Metallurgy, 24 June 2020.

This article was written by Ted Rowan, Strategic Business Development at Forecast 3D, Carlsbad, CA. For more information, visit here .


Medical Design Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2021 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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