Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Print a prosthetic – and more – the miracle gift of 3D printing


With the worldwide revenue from 3D printing in healthcare expected to reach over $900m in 2018, more hospitals and clinicians are recognizing the potential of additive manufacturing. From saving costs and improving clinical processes, to enhancing patient outcomes and experience, Siert Wijnia, CTO and Co-Founder, Ultimaker, outlines how inspiring 3D print initiatives are changing healthcare as we know it

In 2018, 3D printing technology was introduced to Syria, Iraq and Yemen by Pierre Moreau, the clinical coordinator of the 3D Project for Doctors Without Borders in Jordan. Volunteering at a reconstructive-surgery hospital, Moreau assisted war-wounded patients who required treatment for amputations.

Within the thought-provoking Doctors Without Borders video, the inspiring Moreau explains some of the challenges associated with conventional prosthetics, including a high degree of time, cost and the need for skilled professionals. However, as the raw materials used to produce a prosthetic arm cost less than 30 USD, using 3D printing to create a prosthesis is significantly cheaper.

A prosthetic arm consists of a socket, forearm and hand. The socket is the interface between the stump and the prosthesis. Both the socket and the hand are printed with a flexible type of plastic, called polyurethane, to match the patient’s anatomy, and give them a greater range of motion. The forearm is printed with a harder plastic material, for greater rigidity.

These innovative 3D technologies have improved the quality of life for a huge number of refugees, including Ahmed, a patient of Pierre Moreau. At the age of 14, a barrel dropped from a plane, which landed near him and exploded, causing him to lose his left arm. After creating several prototypes, Moreau printed and post-processed a functional prosthetic arm, giving Ahmed the ability to look ahead and pursue his dreams of becoming an engineer.

Sick children or makers of the future?

Children that are hospitalised are often bored and find themselves spending time waiting for their next treatment to commence. In a bid to address this, Dr Gokul Krishnan has founded an Innovation Pop-Up Space at Stanford Children’s Health together with the help of some of their patients, such as Ariana, who has been diagnosed with lymphoma and was hospitalised for several months.

This Innovation Pop-Up Space gives these children – and their siblings – an educational opportunity to spend their time usefully and learn how to work with the latest techniques to create their own inventions. The unique space gives patients the chance to work with Ultimaker 3D printers, electronic building blocks, computers, cameras and other tools that they can use to invent and build their own creations.

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The children that visit the Innovation Pop-Up Space feel an increased sense of control over their lives. So-called Maker Therapy allows children to spend their time more productively, stimulate their creativity, and give them the opportunity to be more than a sick child, but true pioneers with unique new technical skills that they can benefit from for the rest of their lives.

Improved surgical planning with 3D printing

The introduction of 3D printing in the operating room could provide an important added dimension and value, especially when planning trauma surgery. Dr Mike Bemelman (trauma surgeon) and Dr Lars Brouwers (MSc and promovendus) are currently investigating the added value of the 3D printing techniques to improve complex surgeries and reduce the time and costs concerned with these treatments.

A 3D-printed anatomical model gives surgeons the opportunity to practice difficult surgeries up-front, and precisely bend titanium plates for implant before the actual surgery starts, reducing operation time. Consultation between surgeons and patients has also been helped by 3D printing: a patient can better understand the complexity of his or her specific situation when bone fractures can be seen and held from different perspectives, when compared to a 2D scan on a screen. Even though the work of Dr Bemelman and Dr Brouwers is still in the investigatory phase, the initial results seem promising. Smart software solutions are able to transform CT scan files in to a 3D-printable STL file in no time, without any interference from the hospital’s IT department, providing surgeons with the opportunity to easily embed 3D printing into their existing workflow.

These examples reinforce how accessible 3D printing is already having a huge impact on healthcare. And as the technology advances yet further, there is ample opportunity for other healthcare innovators to adopt 3D printing, in order to continue to create solutions that improve the quality of life for those that need it the most.

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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