3D printing is becoming an important tool in nearly every industry today, but one area where it is really making an impact is in the medical field.
Doctors and surgeons can use 3D printed organ or bone models to explain to patients or students the details of a surgery or to practice the surgery itself. Other surgeons are actually designing their own prototypes of new surgical tools or bone replacement options.
The challenge, historically, is that 3D printing can be expensive and difficult to complete.
As a mechanical engineer, I began my career in automation design and robotics, but moved into the medical industry in 1990 when I was hired by an orthopedic knee replacement company. They asked me to utilize my experience to automate the process for finishing knee implants. It was a three-year project and the result was a new process that produced a knee implant in minutes instead of hours.
During that process, I saw the opportunity that surgeons have to develop new techniques and tools to enhance surgical procedures, but they lacked the resources to turn their ideas into a reality. Now, in my spare time I work with the doctors and surgeons to brainstorm a design based on their idea and 3D print it so that they can pitch to companies for production.
So, how does it all work?
An orthopedic surgeon comes up with an idea and it is then modeled using computer-aided design (CAD) software. The design is then printed using a desktop ABS 3D printer to fabricate the first conceptual models and get the surgeon to a point where they are happy with the design and are confident the part will be functional.
Up to this point, it’s fairly easy to manage time and expenses. However, when it comes time for a real functional prototype, that means working with metal and that’s when the costs start to increase. As the surgeons are often doing this on their own time and paying for it from their own pocket, it’s important that costs are managed.