3D Printing in Healthcare – Transforming Global Expertise into Local Care

3 min read

Engimplan implants in the skull

3D printing has been present in many economic sectors for some time, and certainly in the healthcare industry it has been a reality for many years, generating well over a billion dollars in worldwide turnover. At Materialise, where I manage the medical division, our first medical model dates back to 1991, when our CTO converted CT scans into a 3D printed model (it took him 5 full weeks!). Just a year later, we launched Mimics — the world’s first FDA cleared software to turn CT image data into three-dimensional anatomical models.

The growth of 3D printing in the medical industry is driven by different applications. The most significant applications are related to the production of orthopedic and cranio-maxillofacial devices, implants, instruments and prosthetics, delivering significant patient benefits. Regardless of the application however, the impact of 3D printing in healthcare cannot be underestimated – from helping to improve the desired patient outcome to saving a patient’s life.

And sometimes the technology transforms an entire medical industry. A good example is the hearing aids industry. When the hearing-aids industry discovered the transformative power of 3D printing, the change was fast and irreversible. Within 500 days, over 90% of hearing aids in the US made the switch from classic manufacturing to 3D printing – transforming an entire industry in a matter of months.

Engimplan implants for the jaw

When we think about the impact of 3D printing on the healthcare industry, we mostly think about the product innovations it enables. From today’s reality of 3D printing fully-customized skull implants, to future hopes and promises of printing vital organs. These product innovations build on the fact that 3D printing is an inherently digital manufacturing technology, enabling complex designs and increased functionality. Moreover, 3D printing allows for the creation of patient specific instruments and truly personalized implants that take into account the patient’s unique anatomy.

However, the impact of the technology doesn’t end there; 3D printing also enables significant process innovations.  In today’s digital world, medical and manufacturing expertise is scattered around the globe, but when we consider the delivery of care, we want to be as close to the patient as possible. 3D printing has the potential to deeply modify the delivery of healthcare by transforming global expertise into local care, helping to reduce production costs and improving delivery times. Hospitals around the world recognize the added value 3D printing brings to personalized patient care. As a result, an increasing amount of hospitals have integrated 3D printing in their medical offering and are creating point-of-care 3D printing facilities.

Engimplan implants
Engimplan implants

The ability to manufacture locally means that we are no longer encumbered by the need to drive economies of scale, reducing costly inventories and allowing just-in-time production.  The example of 3D printed hearing aids clearly demonstrates these process innovations. The digitization of the hearing aids industry swiftly converted a labor-intensive process into an automated one. The new, simple 3-step process – scanning, modeling and printing – could now take place at different locations in the world: close to where the manufacturing expertise is and closer to the patient. The blueprint of these process innovations can also be applied to other medical domains.

So while we often focus on product innovations, the disruptive power of medical 3D printing also lies in the transformation of the medical supply chain, which allows us to bring care closer to the patient.

The Engimplan office
The Engimplan office

Today, we are taking another step forward with a strategic investment in Engimplan LTDA, a Brazil-based manufacturer of orthopedic and Cranio-Maxillofacial (CMF) implants and instruments. The combination of Materialise’s expertise in 3D printed medical solutions with Engimplan’s innovative product portfolio will help to accelerate the introduction of 3D printed, patient-specific implants and instruments in the Brazilian market. By introducing an inherently digital manufacturing technology into the production process, Brazilian patients will benefit from advanced local care that builds on Materialise’s experience in developing certified medical solutions, which spans nearly three decades and sits thousands of kilometers away. As a result, this investment will not only create significant product innovations by introducing new levels of innovation in the development of personalized implants in Brazil, it will also support important process innovations by bringing personalized care closer to the Brazilian patient.

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