At face value, 3D printing and orthopedics don’t have much overlap. 3D printing production is traditionally relegated to plastic prototypes or boutique small batch production. Don’t look now, but that’s no longer the case.
Stereolithography (SLA) is only a single type of 3D printing technology, only capable of plastic production. But don’t sleep on 3D printing's potential to change the entire medical industry; there have been leaps and bounds over the past decade in the field.
Specifically, the SLA has witnessed advances in Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)/Selective Laser Melting (SLM), allowing for nylon, steel and titanium production. And because 3D printing isn't just plastic anymore, these advances allow for unprecedented retractor, holder, reducer, curette, calcaneal and distractor production and customization.
Integrating 3D printing into orthopedics gives medical professionals a whole new level of flexibility. That’s because with the help of a designer, medical professionals can customize nearly any medical tool with exceptional attention to detail. In many cases, orthopedic doctors have already benefited from customizable medical instruments.
In addition to giving surgeons the ability to create customized tools, 3D printing has decentralized production. This allows orthopedic surgeons to design their medical tool prototypes using CAD (computer aided design) software, print out their first version and make improvements as needed.
Various 3D Printed Prototypes
Typically, creating a new product from scratch requires a long, arduous design process lacking in consistency. Precise, delicate iterations are also difficult to manage. The additive manufacturing method completely changes this.
3D printing has opened the door to innovation in design and engineering. Shortening the iteration loop, inventors can now improve their projects quicker and more precise than ever. As 3D printing technology advances, is more user-friendly and printing speeds increase, the medical industry will experience never-before-seen product development rates.
Customization and complexity are some of the biggest challenges regarding medical instruments. No two people's musculoskeletal structures are exactly the same. Having the ability to customize medical devices allows doctors to better fit their patient's needs, accelerate recovery time and ultimately greatly reduce inconvenience.
In the example shown above, a 3D printed cortex exoskeleton would outperform a traditional plaster cast in every way. One of these cortex exoskeletons is designed for the patient’s specific needs, limb and bone measurements. It is printed for a more comfortable, sanitary, flexible, breathable and lighter option than a plaster cast.
3D Printed Cortex Exoskeleton
In addition to being more convenient to the patient, this exoskeleton is specifically designed to guide broken bones in order for the injury to heal more quickly and effectively. A cortex exoskeleton is only one of many implementations of 3D printing technology in orthopedics.
3D printed medical devices aren't limited to only noninvasive applications; they can also include complicated, individually customized, precisely designed components for an individual patient.
3D Printed Titanium Spinal Disk
Among these precisely designed components, for example, can include a spinal disk (pictured above). Customized 3D printed implants have also been used in pelvic, femoral, arthroplasty and spinal surgeries. In the case of bone deterioration or loss, a surgeon could use a combination of CT and MRI scans in order to retrieve 3D images of bone structures and in turn, create bone prostheses prototypes if needed for surgery.
New Medical Industry Standard
With new technology development comes more customizable parts, imperative to the future of orthopedics. And although still not completely perfected and commercialized in orthopedics, 3D printing is increasingly intrinsic to the medical industry. Moreover, with printing machine prices dropping, most hospitals will be implementing 3D printers as they become an industry standard.