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3D Printing Applications for the Medical Industry

3D printed bones, tissues, and organs are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Additive manufacturing (AM) is now used for everything from surgical implants to prosthetics and even organs and bones.

Aaron Lichtig - Xometry Contributor
By Aaron Lichtig
October 9, 2020
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The medical device industry continues to grow around the world and especially in the United States. As the industry has grown, so has the use of 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) for medical device prototypes and production parts. Medical 3D printing is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Additive manufacturing (AM) is now used for everything from surgical implants to prosthetics and even organs and bones.

According to Zion Market Research, the global 3D printing medical devices market was valued at approximately $0.89 billion USD in 2017 and is expected to generate revenue of around $2.34 billion USD by the end of 2024, growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 18% between 2018 and 2024.

Advantages of 3D Printing for Medical Uses

Why is additive manufacturing ideally suited for the medical market? Three major factors, speed, customization, and cost-effectiveness, are responsible.

Additive manufacturing allows engineers to innovate more quickly. Engineers are able to transform an idea into a physical prototype in as little as 1-2 days. A speedier product development timeframe enables companies to allocate more time for receiving feedback from surgeons and patients. In turn, more and better feedback results in designs that perform better in the market.

3D printing enables unprecedented levels of customization. Everyone’s body is different and 3D printing allows engineers to create products that are tailored to those differences. This increases patient comfort, surgical accuracy, and improves outcomes. Customization also allows engineers bring their creativity to life across a wide range of applications. With 3D printing now available in thousands of flexible, colorful, and strong materials, engineers can bring their most creative visions to life.

Most importantly, AM enables customized medical applications at costs that are often lower than those of traditional manufacturing.

Technologies Used for Medical 3D Printing

Metal and plastic 3D printing technologies are both suited for medical applications. The most common technologies include fused deposition modeling (FDM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), Carbon direct light synthesis (DLS), and selective laser sintering (SLS).

FDM is a great process for early device prototypes and surgical models. Sterilizable FDM materials include PPSF, Ultem, and ABS M30i. Metal 3D printing through DMLS can be done with 17-4PH stainless steel, which is a sterilizable material. A new process, Carbon, uses custom resins for a wide range of end-use medical device applications. Finally, SLS can produce strong, flexible parts and is the best process to use when creating a bone replica.

Using Additive Manufacturing in the Medical Industry

AM is transforming nearly all aspects of the medical industry. 3D printing is making training easier, improving patient experience and accessibility, and easing the process of implant procurement and insertion.

  • Implants: 3D printing isn’t just a part of our physical world, it is also now a part of many people’s bodies. Cutting edge technologies can now 3D print organic matter, such as cells used in tissues, organs, and bones. Orthopedic implants, for example, are used in bone and muscle repair. This helps to increase the availability of implants. AM also excels at making fine lattices that can be placed on the outside of surgical implants, which helps reduce implant rejection rates.
  • Surgical tools: Especially effective in dentistry, 3D printed tools that match a patients’ unique anatomy help surgeons improve surgical accuracy. Orthopedic surgeons also often use guides and tools made via additive manufacturing. Guides are especially useful in knee replacement surgery, facial surgery, and hip replacements. Guides for these procedures are often made from PC-ISO, a sterilizable plastic.
  • Surgical planning and medical training models: Future doctors now often practice on 3D printed organs, which can mimic human organs better than animal organs. Current doctors can print an exact replica of a patient’s organs, making it easier to prepare for complicated surgeries.
  • Medical devices and tools: Traditionally made with subtractive techniques, many surgical tools and devices that are now made with AM can now be custom-printed to tackle particular issues. 3D printing can also produce traditionally manufactured tools like clamps, scalpels, and forceps in a more sterile form and at a lower cost. 3D printing makes it easier to replace these broken or aging tools quickly as well.
  • Prosthetics: 3D Printing plays a key role in making fashionable prosthetics that are also accessible. Open Bionics, based in the UK, makes the Hero Arm, a prosthetic for children that looks like it came from their favorite superhero or princess. More importantly, additive manufacturing is making it easier to develop low-cost prosthetics for communities in need. Prosthetics are now being 3D printed for war zones like Syria and in rural areas in Haiti, where, due to cost and accessibility constraints, many people were previously living without such devices.
  • Medication dosage tools: It is now possible to 3D print pills that house multiple drugs, each with a different release time. These pills make dosing compliance easier and reduce the risk of overdose due to patient error. They also help solve issues related to the interaction of various drugs.

Custom Manufacturing for Medical Device Companies

Since high-end SLS, DMLS, and Carbon 3D printers can cost $500,000 or more, many medical companies are outsourcing production to manufacturing-as-a-service companies like Xometry. 86% of Fortune 500 medical companies rely on Xometry's 3D printing service and medical injection molding as a part of their innovation process. We help the world’s largest and fastest-growing companies move from idea to prototype to production faster, which increases their odds of in-market success.

Top medical companies trust Xometry for its:

  • Vetted network: We have a manufacturing network of over 3,000 manufacturing partners including those who specialize in medical devices, dental, and custom fixturing
  • Broad capabilities: In addition to six 3D printing processes, we offer CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and injection molding (including overmolding and insert molding and post-mold heat staking), which allows us to manufacture the part no matter the stage in the product lifecycle
  • Medical-use materials: Xometry offers instant quotes on PEEK and 17-4PH stainless steel and 316L, and a range of other materials including Ultem, TPEs, Radel, PSU, Lexan, Delrin and more
  • Certifications and registrations: Xometry offers ISO 13485, ISO 9001, UL, ITAR, ISO 7 and 8 Medical Clean Room production
  • Size envelope: Part sizes ranging from miniature to 300 square inches
  • Proven results: 86% of Fortune 500 medical companies and many of the industry’s fastest-growing small companies have made parts with Xometry

To learn more about how Xometry could help you, get an Instant Quote or learn more about how we work with companies in the medical industry.

Aaron Lichtig - Xometry Contributor
Aaron Lichtig
VP of Growth Marketing at Xometry, Jeopardy! winner, and proud father of two. When I'm not crunching numbers or playing trivia, I enjoy writing about manufacturing design and innovation.