The numbers of applications for 3D printers in medicine seem to be limited only by people’s imaginations. Since their original introduction as devices for fabricating low quality three-dimensional plastic models for prototyping, they have evolved into products capable of producing high quality production ready parts from a number of materials. General electric engineers recently demonstrated a small prototype working jet engine made entirely from 3D printed parts.
The development of 3D printing has not escaped the notice of the medical community. Some dental labs routinely use 3D printers to produce crowns, bridges and other orthodontic appliances with unprecedented speed. Surgeons are able to create full-size exact replicas of patient’s brains or other organs that they can use for practice prior to performing the actual surgery. Orthopedic surgeons are able to create precisely fitted implants specifically tailored for each patient. Children’s hospitals can use 3D printing to create prosthetics that are inexpensive to rebuild and enlarge as children grow. The ability to create low cost devices customized for each patient’s specific needs makes 3D printers ideally suited to the healthcare environment.
Beyond printing patient devices, there may be many other applications for 3D printers in hospitals. Many surgeons, for example, would appreciate the ability to custom make instruments specific to their needs. Nurses always have ideas for improving designs for clamps or devices that will help manage IV lines and monitoring cables. Once caregivers are aware that their design ideas can be reproduced quickly and inexpensively, we will find that there is no limit to their creativity.
The potential for broad use of 3D printers in hospitals has created an ideal opportunity for hospital based biomedical engineering programs to expand their services. The key to providing a 3D printing service is to be able to create 3D renderings of physician’s and nurse’s ideas and sketches that can be fed to the printers. For those of you who already are familiar with CAD software, creating the drawings should not be difficult. Also, because of the proliferation of printers across the country and websites like 3D Hub, you do not even need to buy your own printer. 3D Hub enables you to locate 3D printing services in your area where you can upload your drawings and have your devices printed and delivered to you the next day. Many of the Staples and UPS Stores across the country are also offering 3D printing services. If you want to become more familiar with 3D printing, you can also join your local Hackerspace where you can attend regular meetings and get hands on experience with the printers.
This new technology is going to have a profound impact on healthcare. The question for our profession is; will we be a part of it, or will we merely sit on he sidelines as spectators and watch this remarkable change take place without us?
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