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Medical 3D printing gaining ground

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Medical 3D printing is not new in the healthcare sector, the segment which enables surgeons to design their own implants and choose the best possible solution for their patients. With advancement in technology, this industry is gaining momentum gradually, especially in the healthcare sector, finds  Firoza Kothari, Co-founder and CTO of Anatomiz3D

Utilisation of 3D printing in the medical field started about 20 years ago, when it was only applied for printing bone replicas. The process was slow and expensive due to the novelty of the technology and restricted availability back then. Overtime, with advances in technology, the capability expanded to being able to study soft tissue data. With improvements in CT/MRI imagine and DICOM to 3D softwares, the segmentation of data has improved over time, ensuring accuracy and reliability. The increase in the speed of printers has reduced the final product lead time from few weeks to just a few days. Research in materials development has allowed printing in various opacities, flexibilities and colours, which in turn allows for a better simulated experience. Not just plastic, Metal 3D printing has also been a huge boon to the industry because of its capability
to print custom designed implants in medical grade titanium and cobalt-chrome. Expiration of some patents has opened the market for different players to make the technology easily accessible to more people, thereby reducing costs.
3D printing is the next revolution for healthcare, considering it allows for 2D anatomy to be brought to life. Surgeons can pre-plan and practice their surgeries on these models and ensure a personalised approach to treat their patients. It saves operating time, reduces blood loss, anaesthesia time and speeds up recovery. This leads to an overall reduction in the cost of operation.

They can understand and prepare for all the issues they might face in the operation theatre, safeguarding the patients from any unexpected trauma. Service providers from the 3D printing healthcare community can enable the surgeons to design their own implants and choose the best possible solution for their patients. Being able to contribute to the well being of those in need, is definitely a job to look forward to.

Considering the industry is still in its infancy, the skills are acquired on the job. We do not have many trained professionals who have studied the technology. However, this scenario is changing. Some colleges have taken up the initiative to offer advanced courses in additive manufacturing, where they teach about DEFAM (Design For Additive Manufacturing), various 3D printing technologies, materials, applications, post-processing etc. It is important to start similar courses for people in the biology fields.

The field of additive manufacturing requires a mixture of specialists, especially in medicine. To give a few examples:

  • Biotech/Biomedical Engineers/Bsc. Biology/MBBS graduates who understand anatomy and surgical practices. Their profile fits best as design engineers and business development executives. Their role involves contacting and communicating with the medical teams to understand their requirements and replicating that from the CT and MRI data. It involves designing 3D printable patient anatomy, custom implants, prosthetics and orthotics. They are also the ones who end up consulting doctors on which material would best fit their requirements based on the applications.
  • Mechanical/Electrical engineers who understand 3D printers and Inorganic/Organic designing. Their role is to
    design/study the parts and 3D print them in the appropriate technology. It is their duty to ensure that the 3D printers run with accuracy. Repair and maintenance of the 3D printers is one of their core roles. They can even build their own 3D printers through invention or replication. Post-processing and ensuring optimum quality of the 3D printed output is their responsibility, either by doing it themselves or training other people.
  • Industrial designers aim to solve problems by thinking out of the box. They figure out ways to improve a product which allows ease of use and increase in functionality. They come up with innovative designs that enhance implants, prosthetics, orthotics, medical devices, etc. providing the end user with a more refined and advanced product.
  • Material specialists/Metallurgy engineers play a huge role in improving and maintaining the quality of powders/resins. Their research makes different grades of materials available to the market. Research in plastics allows for representation of anatomical data as per required simulation and that in metal helps with improving the properties of medical grade materials/alloys such as titanium, chrome-cobalt, etc.

Apart from the above, anyone with a passion to learn something new and endure challenges will find themselves fitting well in this industry. It is an entrepreneur magnet.  The potential that this industry holds and the exposure one receives at this pioneering stage is humungous and the trend only shows an upward growth.

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