The Healthcare Industry has Taken on 3D Printing, but We Have Only Seen the Tip of the Iceberg
According to experts in 3D printing, the Danish healthcare industry has come a long way in adopting the new technology, but it still holds more potential.
3D printing is no longer a curious feature, but a mature technology that can help directly in production – an opportunity all kinds of companies need to take seriously. It has been possible to print plastic since the ’80s, but today there are hundreds of materials and many different printing methods to choose from.
“The technology is growing at a serious rate right now. Many of the large pharmaceutical companies in Denmark have already adopted 3D printing, and the entire spectrum of the medical industry is included, from hospitals and pharmacies to medical devices. The really interesting thing is that since 3D printing has become so well-known, many employees in the field have also started to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Susanne Damvig, CEO at Damvig A/S, who has 25 years of experience in providing 3D printing services.
By using data from patients, you can tailor-make exactly the product they need to avoid wrong doses
Frank Rosengreen Lorenzen
The technology is not just for engineers who want to make prototypes anymore. The barrier of entry into the technology is incredibly low, yet its flexibility is high.
This means that it can be used for small improvements by the average employee, who may want to 3D print a small tool to use in their work, but it also has the potential to alter the product or the value chain – perhaps even both at the same time. This makes it important for manufacturers to keep an eye on where it makes sense for them to apply the technology, and, according to Frank Rosengreen Lorenzen, CEO of the Danish hub for Additive Manufacturing, or the ”AM Hub”, many Danish companies already excel in doing just that.
“Companies, especially the bigger ones, are beginning to figure out how to calculate what can be gained by this technology. At first glance it is expensive to implement, but if you account for benefits such as smaller inventories, faster delivery and new product opportunities, it is well worth the effort,” Lorenzen claims.
Because 3D printing technology has become more open and accessible, we are seeing greater innovation nowadays than ever before.
Tailor-made medicine is just one of the areas within the healthcare sector where this technology is expected to play a major role. Because the dosage is measured based on the needs of the individual patient, 3D printing is perfect for the production of individualised medicine on a large scale.
“By using data from our clients, we can create the exact amount of products we need. This way we can avoid giving patients incorrect doses,” Lorenzen says.
While 3D-printed medicine isn’t here yet, its principle is already being utilised to tailor supplements. And when it hits the drug market, it will offer yet another advantage.
“3D-printed objects are made up of many layers, so a 3D-printed pill will be absorbed more efficiently, because different substances are in different layers and are released at differing rates,” the AM Hub CEO points out.
The science-fiction dream is not that far off
Although 3D-printed body parts sound like a concept from a Terminator movie, they are not as far away as one might think.
Damvig has already taken the first step with Rigshospitalet, where 3D models of children’s hearts are printed based on CT scans, which doctors can use to prepare for the actual surgery.
“With the many kinds of technologies and equipment that are available to us, we can make 3D models from a material that mimics a real heart. This means that doctors have a realistic model that they can practice on, so the children only have to be anesthetised for a short time during the actual operation,” Damvig explains.
3D-printed versions of regular implants and organs are also on their way to the market. The Danish startup Particle3D is already working on 3D-printed bones, and several other applications of this remarkable technology have been shown to work in laboratories around the world.
“With additive manufacturing, you can print skin: there is already a company in South Africa doing just that. Last year, a hospital in Tel Aviv 3D printed a functioning heart the size of a rabbit’s,” Lorenzen says.
These advanced-tech body parts are not on their way to the market just yet – they are still reserved for research environments. But the current trajectory of the technology suggests that a future with organ printers in hospitals may not be so unrealistic.
“These appear to be wild ideas, but they are not as far-fetched as they may seem. Body parts are actually being printed, and some of the leading experts in the field believe that within 10 years we will see organs from this technology being implanted in humans,” Lorenzen concludes.