Why Use 3D Printing With Orthopedics?

August 24, 2017 by Shane Michael Fox

Two Different Worlds Integrating in Harmony

To most people, 3D printing and orthopedics sound like two completely different industries — but that's been quickly changing in the past decade. Initially, 3D printing was viewed for only one aspect of its capabilities: making plastic versions of a final product. However, stereolithography (SLA) is only a single type of 3D printing technology, which serves as the stereotypical image of what a 3D printer looks like (pictured below).

Obviously, using an SLA printer which only produces plastic isn't feasible in the orthopedic industry for a number of reasons. For this reason alone, orthopedic professionals might underestimate the 3D printing's potential to change the entire medical industry. With the development and advancement of the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)/Selective Laser Melting (SLM), completely new surgical instruments can be swiftly produced, customized, and iterated. 3D printing isn't just plastic anymore — it's nylon, steel, and titanium. Sounds too good to be true? That's the point.

Designing Supplies/Tools

One of the biggest benefits of integrating 3D printing into the orthopedic industry is the sheer level of flexibility it gives medical professionals. 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 benefitted from having the ability to customize their medical instruments to fit their preferences.

In addition to giving surgeons the ability to create customized tools, 3D printing has decentralized the creation of new products and tools. Theoretically, if an orthopedic surgeon came up with an idea for a new medical tool, they could design their prototype via CAD (computer aided design) software, print out their first version, and make edits to it as needed. This brings us to the next benefit 3D printing offers the orthopedic field...

Rapid Prototyping

Various 3D Printed Prototypes

Typically, the design process of creating a new product from scratch is a long, arduous process with limited ability to create consistent and delicate iterations. 3D printing's additive manufacturing method changes that completely. 3D printing has opened the door to innovation in design and engineering — shortening the iteration loop and giving inventors the ability to improve their projects more quickly and precisely than ever before. As 3D printing technology advances, becomes more user-friendly, and printing speeds improve, the medical industry will experience a product development rate that has never been seen before.

Temporary Rehabilitation

3D Printed Cortex Exoskeleton

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 decrease inconvenience for both the doctor and the patient. In the example shown above, a 3D printed cortex exoskeleton would outperform a traditional plaster cast in every way.

Typically, a cortex exoskeleton would be made by identifying the particular needs of the patient, taking limb and bone measurements, and printing out a cast that is more comfortable, sanitary, flexible, breathable, and lighter than a plaster cast. 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 Titanium Spinal Disk

3D printed medical devices aren't limited to only noninvasive applications. In a surgical setting, 3D printing can be leveraged to create complicated structures that absolutely must fit a surgery patient and must thus be customized on a case-by-case basis. One example of this would be a spinal disk (pictured above). Additionally, 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.

Although still not completely perfected and commercialized in orthopedics, 3D printing is evidently becoming increasingly adopted in the industry. Inevitably, with printing machine prices dropping, a majority of hospitals will be utilizing 3D printers/tools and it will easily become an industry standard. With the development of new technology comes an increased accessibility to customization — something vital to the future of orthopedics.

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