In 1983, Chuck Hall, the father of 3D printing, created something that was equal parts simple and earth-shattering. He manufactured the world’s first-ever 3D printer and used it to print a tiny eye wash cup.
It was just a cup. It was small and black and utterly ordinary looking. But that cup paved the way for a quiet revolution, one that today is changing the healthcare industry in dramatic ways.
As healthcare costs in America continue to skyrocket, with no political solution in sight, this technology could offer some direly needed relief.
Here are just some the ways in which 3D printing is already revolutionizing the healthcare industry.
I love to tell the story of Amanda Boxtel, who came to me a few years ago complaining that her robotic suit, a gorgeous piece of design from Ekso Bionics, was uncomfortable to wear. Amanda is paralyzed from the waist down, and while this suit gave her the gift of movement, it couldn’t give her the symmetry and freedom of range of motion that she, like all humans, craved.
Unlike traditional prosthetics, which are mass-manufactured like any other traditional factory-produced good, 3D-printed prosthetics are custom-tailored for each individual user. By digitally capturing Amanda’s unique measurements, I was able to build her a custom-fit suit, much like a tailor would, creating a beautiful, lightweight design that fit Amanda’s body down to each distinct millimeter.
This same technology is now being harnessed to create beautiful conformal ventilated scoliosis braces, supports for amputees and more.
Bioprinting and tissue engineering
Writing in a recent issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, the surgeon Jason Chuen alerted his colleagues to a major technological breakthrough that could eventually do away with the need for human organ transplants. Here’s how it works:
3D printing is performed by telling a computer to apply layer upon layer of a specific material (quite often plastic or metal powders), molding them one layer at a time until the final product — be it a toy, a pair of sunglasses or a scoliosis brace — is built. Medical technology is now harnessing this technology and building tiny organs, or “organoids,” using the same techniques, but with stem cells as the production material. These organoids, once built, will in the future be able to grow inside the body of a sick patient and take over when an organic organ, such as a kidney or liver, fails.
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