Elizabeth Boorman April 14, 2014

I am still quite new at Materialise. I joined as a copywriter in February and I am still learning the various aspects of the departments in the company and all the wonderful things 3D Printing can do. One of my first days on the job I met with Lies Pieters from our “Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery” Department. This department has done some amazing things, such as providing the tools for the first Belgian face transplant through its digital imaging software, and finding a solution for the cancer patient missing part of his face.

Lies (right) and myself (left) holding a model of a titanium implant on a 3D printed skull.
Lies (right) and myself (left) holding a model of a titanium implant on a 3D printed skull.

I knew next to nothing about the Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery Department prior to working here, and was particularly fascinated by the fact that it is possible to design and 3D print titanium implants. In fact, Materialise’s daughter company, OBL, does just this and creates titanium implants that are customized to the patient’s anatomy and surgeon’s requirements. The surgeon uploads the patient’s medical imaging data, such as CT scans, into our software (Mimics or 3-matic) where the data is transformed into a virtual 3D model. The surgeon then looks at that virtual model and begins to plan the surgery. When a titanium implant is needed, the surgeon contacts a clinical engineer to work with him/her to create a design customized specifically for him/her. Then the implant is 3D printed out of titanium to fit the location that the surgeon wishes to place it. While this in itself sounds like incredible technology, that is not the half of it.


What I think is the most amazing part of this technology is that the implants are printed to be porous structures, which are optimized for natural bone ingrowth and engineered to mimic bone properties.   Something that I had never thought of was that traditional implants behave very different from natural bone. With traditional implants, sudden changes in temperature can inflict pain and discomfort in the patient, and the mechanical behavior can be a health risk if the patient is hit by an object. The porous structure of the implant gives an elasticity close to that of natural bone and acts as a shock absorber for larger impacts, a bit like the behavior of modern cars upon impact. At the same time, the porous structure will efficiently exchange heat with its surroundings, a bit like a radiator, thus avoiding pain originating from temperature differences. This is one instance where 3D Printing can really make a difference in an individual’s life. By designing and printing metal implants for each patient, their quality of life is improved as the implant is more in harmony with the anatomy of the patient and increasing patient comfort. To discover more about the use of titanium implants, visit  OBL’s website.