Pieter Slagmolen April 11, 2018

3D Printing has come a long way since the inception of the technology. It has gone from being used almost uniquely for prototypes in industrial environments, to enabling the creation of highly complex, customized medical devices that help physicians provide their patients with better treatment options and a higher level of care.

The evolution of 3D printing technology

As with any new technology, early adopters traditionally stemmed from a research environment, where they would drive the implementation of the technology in their own center, as well as further developing the uses of the technology and supplying proof of the benefits. As the technology has matured, it is apparent that today, the trend towards adoption includes an increasing number of hospitals who have set up their own internal 3D printing process. Point-of-care 3D Printing allows these hospitals to respond faster to patient demands, and provide patient-specific solutions. Today, this is mostly a reality for 3D-printed anatomical models, where printed files complement other planning work performed on 3D imaging or 3D modeling.

3D-printed anatomical model of a patient's skull

Obstacles towards adoption

Time is of the essence in a fast-paced clinical environment. Depending on the condition of the patient, physicians don’t always have a lot of time to occupy themselves with extensive post-processing workflows to guide the patient diagnosis and treatment. Implementing a new technology such as 3D Printing will add more time onto the clinical workflow, and required dedicated resources even if it can help produce better patient outcomes. It will require a significant investment from the industry to continue streamlining the 3D printing workflow, including the automation of image processing and modeling, and minimizing the post-processing efforts.

We are not at the stage yet where doctors can simply push a button, and instantly get a meaningful printed model. 3D Printing does produce results, but the quality of these results lie in the skill of the teams working on cases and good collaboration between experts, such as radiologists, surgeons and clinical engineers.

3D-printed multicolor heart model

Overcoming obstacles through integration

However, we believe that these obstacles towards an integrated clinical 3D printing workflow can already be partially overcome. The benefits of insourcing 3D Printing mean that hospitals have direct access to printing technologies. Continuous improvements in 3D printing software mean that all 3D printing requirements can be united in a single software environment.

With end-to-end partnerships with major healthcare players and 3D printer manufacturers, hospitals can rely on a validated software system which integrates with PACS or other existing A/V solutions, and which then allows them to take the process of creating a digital model and printing it into their own hands. In future, the goal for vendors will increasingly be the automation of image processing and file preparation. This is not a far-off reality, as advances in data processing through artificial intelligence algorithms such as deep learning are enabling smarter, more sophisticated software. However for the more complex cases, where the application of 3D Printing makes most sense, the need to include the skilled eye of the imaging expert will always remain.

What does the future of Medical 3D Printing look like?

Regulators are realizing that end-to-end software can play a big role in the diagnostic setting, and that quality assurance from image to printed model is crucial. The regulation around 3D printing tools continues to change as their implications are better understood by the regulation bodies. Materialise has long been a leader in medical 3D printing applications, and we aim to continue paving the way for others by conforming to the highest standards when demonstrating the safety and efficacy of the technology. When the FDA set new standards for the regulation of 3D printing software which could lead to the creation of 3D-printed anatomical models used to form a medical diagnosis, Materialise was the first company in the world to receive clearance for their Mimics inPrint software. Models created and printed with compatible printers can, from now on, be used in a clinical framework for pre-surgical planning, device and surgeon-to-surgeon communication.

Will hospitals ever be able to use a 3D printer with the same ease and regularity as a standard, paper printer? We will certainly evolve more and more in that direction. But we should always keep in mind that what we send to a 3D printer should be created with dedicated efforts and a clear end goal in mind in order to reap the full benefits of the technology.

Read more about our newest addition to the medical 3D printing ecosystem, which will help bring 3D Printing one step closer to that future, and discover our FDA-cleared software, Mimics inPrint.

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