How 3D printing is changing health
3D printing has come a long way in recent years and offers the health sector exciting opportunities that are innovative and cost effective says Neil Sharwood.
A surgeon practising removing a tumour on a 3D model to prepare for an operation and a pharmacist printing out tablets for a one-off prescription are just two ways 3D printing will transform health care in the near future.
Neil Sharwood, the founder of the Australian 3D Manufacturing Association, spoke at the NSWNMA’s recent annual conference about the way converging technologies are bringing about another industrial revolution, one where manufacturing is more customised and decentralised than ever.
“We are in another industrial revolution. There are all these technologies coming at the same time, and where they intersect lots of exciting things are happening.
“What we are seeing now is a big decentralisation. We are all carrying computing power in our pockets that decades ago only governments and multinational corporations had.
“You don’t need a large factory any more for a lot of things. Smaller businesses and fabrication facilities allow for smaller productions, greater customisation, less waste and reductions in shipping and handling.”
Sharwood outlined many new and developing medical applications for the emerging technology of 3D printing. When used to make prosthetics, for example, suppliers can not only “produce them for about a tenth of the cost”, the patient can be involved in the design process.
“The patient can have their own taste and say ‘you know what, I wish it was like this’.”
3D models of human parts are now being printed from medical scans and 3D imaging to allow for better operation planning.
“Surgeons have even practised on the model with a tumour highlighted so they can sit around and plan procedure before the operation,” Sharwood said.
“They can take them into the operating theatre and cut the model before they cut the patient. Surgeons have already found using 3D models has led to better outcomes.”
Printing the human body
The technology can also be used to print tablets customised to individual patients, he explained. “You can combine a couple of medicines at the same time to make a polypill that is tailor-made to the patient. And you can structure it to deliver medicine as it passes through the body at the right time to get the right results.”
While 3D printing machines have been used to print houses and clothes for some time, the technology is now being turned to print human bodies to teach anatomy students. By doing away with the costs associated with embalming and licensing to use cadavers, a body can be “printed for a tenth of the cost that it costs to buy it,” according to Sharwood.
“Teachers find people are more willing to pick up a printed model and play with it than they are [when given] a pickled part,” he added. “And imagine what it costs to run an operating theatre, as opposed to just students being together and using a model.”
3D printing machines can also be used to print biomaterials that can be used to repair body parts. The University of Wollongong is a leader in this field, Sharwood said, with scientists building new parts from living cells and using the technology to “regenerate and reconnect severed nerves”.
This emerging technology, Sharwood said, is rapidly moving us into the new industrial era.
“You can have an idea for an invention in the morning, have a prototype in the afternoon.”
Listen to the podcast
You can listen to Neil Sharwood’s full presentation at:
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