Medical AM

The medical additive manufacturing sector, which for the broadest scope also encompasses dental and bioprinting, is today one of the largest adopters of 3D printing technologies for the production of consumer-targeted, end-use items, including prosthetics and orthotics, implants, devices and physical models. One of the biggest selling points for additive in this context is the ability to personalize and customize products to the patient, from patient-specific surgical guides that help surgeons prepare for an operation, to customized orthotics, to 3D printed implants tailored to the patient’s anatomy and needs.   

While the benefits of AM technologies for personalized medicine and more efficient surgical practices are well documented, several hurdles still exist that are limiting a more widespread adoption of these key technologies in hospitals and medical practices. Several of these hurdles are inherent to AM technologies and related material availability, however, the biggest challenges result from a lack of standards and a general lack of awareness, resulting in a slow pace of adoption.

That said, applications for AM in healthcare, including surgical guides and pre-surgical models are today so widespread they can in a way be compared to the broad adoption of AM for prototyping and tooling in the industrial manufacturing arena. On the standards and regulations front, advances are also being made which are paving the way for broader AM adoption.  

Leading AM hardware manufacturers, such as 3D Systems, EOS, Desktop Metal’s ETEC (formerly EnvisionTec) and SLM Solutions, along with leading global service providers like Oerlikon, Jabil and Materialise, are investing heavily to develop both medical and dental AM applications. Medical product powerhouses like Stryker, DePuy Synthes, Zimmer Biomet (these two merged in 2015), and Smith & Nephew, are conducting R&D with AM for a range of innovative devices. Stryker was among the earliest adopters along with medium size international firm Lima Corporate.

Below are some of the key subsegments of the medical AM vertical that we cover in this AM Focus.

Medical implants

In the medical implant market, 3D printed implants still only account for a small fraction, however it is a growing subsegment, with an increasing number of 3D printed implant manufacturers bringing new products to market. VoxelMatters’ Index currently lists over 80 implant manufacturers of varying sizes, some of which have been utilizing AM in a significant manner for more than a decade and are beginning to look beyond just the design and production of existing implant types in titanium using additive manufacturing.

Among the most common 3D printed implants today are customized orthopedic implants with porosity for optimal osseointegration. These include spinal implants, bone plates and more. 3D printed reconstructive implants, such as maxillofacial implants, are also gaining in prominence as they can be designed to match a patient’s specific anatomy. 

Typically, biocompatible, medical-grade titanium is used for these implants. Though significant strides are also being taken—mainly in the private segment—toward the development of advanced polymers, metals and ceramics fit for implantation in humans. 

Pharmaceutical

Additive manufacturing also has important applications in the pharmaceutical industry, where specialized printing technologies can produce medication with patient-specific dosages and personalized drug release profiles. This capability is part of a shift away from mass production for medication towards tailored medications.

In drug development, additive is also playing an increasingly important role, as the technology can be used for rapid prototyping purposes to produce small batches of drugs to be tested in pre-clinical animal models. The ability to bioprint tissues will also have a seismic impact on drug discovery, as medications can be tested on engineered tissues that mimic human tissues. On this front, 3D Systems created a new wholly-owned subsidiary, Systemic Bio, dedicated to bioprinting for drug discovery and development.

Dental

The dental segment is a key area for the use of additive manufacturing across healthcare industries, in terms of hardware sales, material sales (especially, but not limited to, photopolymers) and numbers of parts produced (including models, dental trays, surgical guides, temporaries, crowns and implants). In fact, dental additive manufacturing was the first segment to achieve the production of certain end-use parts, effectively fueling growth for all main traditional polymer additive manufacturing hardware and material stakeholders. 

Historically, dental additive manufacturing technologies have been applied in dental laboratories for over two decades, and more recently they have begun to be adopted by dentists, orthodontists, and oral surgeons. The use of 3D printing in the laboratory and the dentist’s office has been steadily growing for the past several years. Now the dental opportunity has emerged as one of the most relevant for the AM industry as a whole, with literally hundreds of thousands of potential adopters all over the world.

Bioprinting

Although complex organ production for human transplant remains a very long term objective, simpler bioprinted organs and tissue grafting for human use now seem increasingly within reach, especially for cartilage, bone, and skin. In late 2023, for example, the first patients were treated with CMFlex, an off-the-shelf 3D printed synthetic bone graft product developed by Dimension Inx on the 3D-Bioplotter. 

Commercial implementation of bioprinting technologies is already underway in the fields of drug development testing (DDT) and cosmetics development and testing. Adoption has also been booming within the regenerative and bioengineering areas of research at major academic institutions operating in these fields around the world, which has driven the development and sale of an increasing number of bioprinting systems, based on several different additive processes.

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