The Medical Industry is by far the biggest adapter of Additive Manufacturing technology, with the Medical Industry accounting for some 15% of all Rapid Prototyping in 2009. From novel to potentially life saving applications, the Medical Industry will continue as a strong growth sector for Rapid Prototyping as researchers work to uncover new applications and refine existing technologies.
Traditionally a tool of the design verification stage, with early material limitations resulting in brittle, photo-sensitive prototype models. These material limitations meant early prototype models were predominantly used for visual design aids and marketing activities, with limited functionality. As the range of materials available for Additive Manufacturing has increased so too has the range of applications for this technology. Designers can now choose materials that closely simulate production plastics, allowing for fit, form and functional testing. Medical Device designers can find likely production issues before committing to expensive production tooling.
A London-based, Ultrasound Clinic became one of the first UK companies to adapt a their clients the opportunity to buy a 3D printed model of their unborn baby. Doctors at the clinic are also investigating the potential for using 3D ultrasound imaging combined with 3D printing as a tool for the early diagnosis of developmental problems and illness with the aim of improving survival rates for sick babies.
Orthopaedic firms too have seen the potential of Rapid Prototyping, with orthopaedic design engineers such as Orchid design integrating 3D printing into the design process to verify design and to prevent costly design errors. Newcastle based Peacocks Medical have taken this one step further, by integrating Selective Laser Sintering into their production process. Using SLS it is possible for Peacocks Medical to create “perfect fit” prosthetics for their clients.
While orthopaedic and prosthetic applications of this technology have proven positive, the true potential of Rapid Prototyping lies within the field of bio-printers. Researchers are working on 3D printing machines, capable of printing human skin, blood and organs. If successful the To date this research has shown positive results, however it is not likely that we will see 3D printers in local hospitals just yet. For burns victims and transplant patients, bio printers hold the potential for life saving treatments.
Rapid Prototyping now offers USP Grade VI and ISO 13485 approved materials which has further strengthened the role of Rapid Prototyping within the Medical industry. Stereolithography material Watershed is suitable for use in preclinical trials while Electron Beam Melting and Direct Metal Laser Sintering have proven popular as a manufacturing process for customised orthopaedic implants. With ongoing investment in materials and research into the field of bio-printing it is likely that the next few years will see further changes in how Rapid Prototyping technologies applies to the Medical Industry.