While not always at the forefront of attention grabbing headlines, the advent of 3D printing in healthcare has been steadily progressing and genuinely groundbreaking. 3D printing refers to several manufacturing technologies that generate a physical model from digital information. Not a long time ago, 3D printing was considered an ambitious pipe dream. However, investment, resources, efforts, and of course, time has made those dreams real. Now, 3D printing technology stands to offer an excellent opportunity to help medical and pharmaceutical companies to create patient-specific solutions and enable the rapid production to support medical facilities thereby radically transforming the way doctors and surgeons plan procedures.

Today, patient-specific 3D printed anatomical models are becoming useful tools in the practice of precision medicine and for better, more effective treatments. During trying times, medical additive manufacturing can considerably reduce the waiting lists and increase the number of lives saved. Additive manufacturing in healthcare is still in its nascent stages. Yet, the technology is being applied in many different ways within the medical field, which is already reeling under immense pressure with regards to optimal performance and lower costs. Healthcare will stand to gain unprecedented benefits from this good-as-gold technology.

How is additive manufacturing helping healthcare systems?

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, was first developed in the 1980s. It involves taking a digital blueprint or model of a subject and then printing it in successive layers of appropriate material to create a new version of the item. The technique has primarily been applied to and leveraged by many different industries. Often medical imaging techniques like computed tomography (CT) scans, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and ultrasounds are used to produce the original digital model, which is then fed into the 3D printing system subsequently.

In the face of the current global crisis, we are now seeing countries implementing travel restrictions, work from home policies, and social distancing measures. Despite these efforts, even more developed countries are seeing their healthcare system exhausted and overloaded by COVID-19. The relationship between coronavirus and 3D printing is not entirely clear mostly because we are very far from comprehending what the long, medium and even short term implications of the pandemic are going to be on global supply chains. However, medical additive manufacturing is rapidly helping industrial supply chains that are affected by limitations on conventional production and imports by providing localized support. We can thus be sure of one thing- 3D printing will have an immediate beneficial effect when the supply chain is completely broken.

In the more severe cases, patients may require specialized ventilators to take over the role of lungs along with other equipment like masks, which are in short supply along with medical personnel, hospital space, and other safety equipment required to treat patients. One of the most prominent immediate problems that COVID-19 is causing is the massive number of people who need oxygenation and intensive care to live through the infection long enough for their immune system to fight it. What this necessarily implies for healthcare systems is that the only way to save lives beyond prevention is thus to have as many working reanimation machines as possible. If and when they break down, 3D printing in healthcare is likely to help.

How are additive manufacturing companies responding to the global crisis?

Professional medical additive manufacturing industries and designers in the 3D printing community are responding to the global crisis by volunteering their respective skills to ease the pressure on governments and supply chains.  For instance, Materialise, the 3D printing company has designed a 3D printed door opener that makes it possible to operate doors (opening and closing them) with your arm. It removes any need for direct contact with doorknobs. Coronavirus can survive on surfaces for an extended time, and doorknobs present a high risk of contamination. The company is rapidly calling upon the global 3D printing community to 3D print the door opener and make it widely and globally available for use.

In Italy, where the situation has gone from bad to worse, projects like the Pugliese-Sicilian open-source mask have emerged. Masks are scarce, and when you do manage to find them, they are costly. The Italian team effectively set up a web platform that allows users to download the file and print the mask at home, freely on-demand. The decision to force the system of production and large scale distribution by creating an open-source project that everyone can draw on has saved lives!

In a hospital in Brescia, its personnel was out of intensive care unit valves. In these trying and unforeseen situations, finding a competent, prompt solution is very crucial, and this is where 3D printing technologies are offering a lot. In a relatively short duration, 3D printers were brought in, the valves were designed on CAD software, and then 3D printed. The founder of The Fab Lab, Massimo Temporelli in Milan, conducted a part of this operation and reports that the system is not just practical but also accessible! 10 patients are using it currently!

An engineer specializing in surgical 3D printing in Saudi Arabia has designed a 3D printable wrist clasp to hold a bottle of sanitizer for easy access! Cleansing hands now is easier than ever before with the simple design realized by MoathAbuaysha. The wrist attachment lets users lather up their palms in antiseptic gel without actually having to hold (and potentially) contaminate the bottle! All this at just a moment’s notice! 3D printing in healthcare is revolutionizing the industry in more ways than one.

The European Association for Additive Manufacturing (CECIMO) is responding to a request from the European Commission. Members are being queried on whether they can successfully aid in producing medical equipment or hospitals tackled the COVID-19 outbreak. Examples of medical equipment include valves and ventilators. The call has been extended to include almost all AM companies within Europe. Fillip Geerts, CECIMO Director General, says,

I believe that the additive manufacturing sector can play an important role in sustaining the effort of hospital workers in the middle of this emergency. However, it is in the best interest of all to clarify the regulatory issues to move forward quickly and in a way that is not going to delay immediate actions”.

In response to a recent social media post on ventilators, 3D printing user and manufacturer Hummingbird Scientific posted a video on ventilators– as the Hummingbird president noted, “a non-trivial piece of equipment”.

Doug Collins, Co-owner of Avid Product Development remarks,

“We understand manufacturing is being affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus, as it impacts supply chains and causes an interruption in operations. Using a 3D printing service bureau based in the U.S. can help resolve supply chain disruptions and enables manufacturers to keep producing their parts and products. Not only can we print production quantities at Avid, but we can leverage our in-house mechanical engineering team to reverse engineer and design parts and products for additive manufacturing.”

Additive Manufacturing (AM) offers end to end, state of the art 3D printing solutions to various players in diverse industries enabling them to build innovative 3D printing applications and is dedicated solely to additive manufacturing technologies. Additive manufacturing specialists work globally and across all borders and languages to reach leading institutions, industry leaders and organizations offering inspiration and education to an audience of youth, entrepreneurs, students, and professionals. Ultimately, they aim to empower clients to launch innovations that have the potential to forever transform the faces of their industries and transition eventually towards a digitally-enabled manufacturing process.