The ability to create three dimensional objects, complete with fine detail and a variety of materials was originally only cost-effective if it was mass produced. For unique items that need only one model, getting it manufactured by machines used to be expensive and inefficient.
That changes with 3D printing. Now, bespoke items with a range of applications can be produced on a tailored basis with no dependence on industrial equipment. Many predict this will revolutionise the way we manufacture and produce certain items and tools, not least, medical equipment.
So here are five reasons to get excited about 3D printing revolutionising medicine:
Antibacterial Dental Implants
A Dutch researcher has developed a 3D printed tooth that is not only perfectly fitted to your mouth, but also keeps it clean too.
Andreas Herrmann and his colleagues at the University of Groningen have developed an antimicrobial plastic, allowing 3D printed objects -in this case, teeth - to provide antibacterial properties.
there's a lot of potential in dentistry for 3D printing, not least in Herrmann's antimicrobial plastic, as it's common for bacteria to damage dental implants and is costing the industry millions to deal with it.
Low-budget, high-value prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs, originally, are expensive bits of equipment. Traditionally, those needing a prosthetic limb would have to wait weeks for the process to complete and often spend in the tens of thousands. They're highly personal items so by default, they must be custom-made. 3D printing has made them vastly more affordable and can be printed locally, rather than at a specialist centre.
Check out Enabling the Future to see how 3D printers have provided affordable prosthetic hands to hundreds of people around the world.
The technology is still in its early stages, but various researchers have succeeded in crafting relatively simple organic tissue that in the future might replace damaged cartilage or cure congenital deformities.
The technology relies on a technique where a sponge-like 3D tissue absorbs nutrients and allows cells to grow within it. The plastic then dissolves and the structural form remains as the cells have grown into it.
Science, eh? Read more on this here.
Bone replacements have traditionally been metal, which has its issues. Children who are still growing must have the replacement lengthened as they grow, which as you'd expect creates a host of challenges.
A researcher at Tokyo University Hospital has been developing custom-made skin, bone and cartilage that involves stem-cells and a synthetic material similar to collagen that can mimic our own anatomy. Progress in this field will revolutionise the way we treat bone injuries and degenerative diseases like arthritis.
Cheap, Specialist Tools
In developing countries, medical equipment can be difficult to acquire due to manufacturing costs. Surgical instruments that are made by 3D printers have dramatically cheaper to create and the feasibility of sending them to developing countries is being explored.
Researchers at the University of Arizona have been printing widely-used surgical equipment using a Makerbot Replicator 2 printer. In 2010, a survey showed that around a third of people living in low-income nations have virtually no access to surgical services, highlighting a crippling lack of medical infrastructure. With 3D printing, providing life-saving tools is likely to soon be easily affordable.