Breaking out of its rut, 3D printing shows its medical side

By James Robinson , written on February 28, 2014

From The News Desk

The 3D printing market is in a holding pattern. The technology has great potential, but only a few trained people are able to unlock it. There’s a lot of excitement about what the technology could do 20 years from now, but a similar level of grumbling that the hype has created a bubble. Insiders liken it to the PC industry in the 1980s, but people are impatient for it to change the world now. Maybe - as predicted - in 2030 there will be a $30 billion industry printing our clothes, shoes, and those little doohickeys that hold up your pictures on the wall. But there will be many years in the interim, which will be filled with speculation among warring camps of skeptics and evangelists about just how transformative it will become.

Part of the problem is communication. A lot of people don’t understand the technology yet. Mainstream coverage zooms out too far while much industry attention is too granular, focusing on impressive, one-off projects - 3D printed yachtsski boots, a kid's prosthetic hand.

Breaking 3D printing out of this rut, a trove of recent medical success stories show that health care represents a happy medium for the technology, illustrating its capacity to replicate detailed objects with a high level of accuracy and precision while demonstrating this power in ways that most of us can wrap our heads around. It's slowly becoming a lucrative niche, too. Medical use of 3D printing technology has grown quietly into a $215 million industry, according to research cited late last year in the Financial Times.

This week, local Louisville WDRB news anchors exalted the power of 3D printing technology after it was used to perform life-saving surgery on a 14-month old boy with four congenital heart defects. A local 3D printer created a replica of the boy’s heart at twice the scale, showing the surgeon where every blood vessel was located, allowing for his team to develop a detailed strategy for repairing the heart that drastically reduced the risk and length of the procedure and saw the boy checking out of hospital four days later.

There was a similarly heartwarming story earlier in February, when Reuters reported on a 15-year old Swedish girl who had previously been reduced to a wheelchair with little hope of walking again, following complications from a surgery to remove a benign tumor and the discovery of a skeletal deformation in her hip. Mobelife, a Belgium-based 3D printing company, worked on preparing a unique 3D hip transplant for the girl based on the exact bone anatomy of her leg. Eighteen-months later, she was walking again unaided. This news was followed by reports of a British man who had half of his pelvis removed to stop the spread of a rare cancer and then had it replaced with a 3D printed implant to help him walk again.

With these stories, the medical industry represents an early opportunity for a PR boom for 3D printing: a Boston man builds a prosthetic hand for his 12-year old son for $150, saving himself $29,850 on the cost, a San Diego lab looks to produce its first 3D printed liver by the end of 2014 and NASA heads to space to test out its methods for 3D printing human tissue.

Beyond the current euphoric claims that 3D printing will one day change the world, medical-based 3D printing is doing it now, and each success, as fantastic as it sounds, is changing the narrative.

[image via mac_filko on flickr]