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Will 3-D Printing Revolutionize Medicine?

What Is 3-D Printing?

Imagine an ink jet printer that, rather than spraying out ink in the shape of letters, sprays out a plastic or metal gel or powder in the shape of a tooth, finger, or a hip joint. A typical printer receives a document to print, while 3-D printers take their commands from an MRI or a CT scan of a body part. Also known as “additive manufacturing,” 3-D printing produces an object, layer by layer, from the ground up.

Although 3-D printers have been around since the 1980s, medical uses have skyrocketed in the past few years, experts say.

They can produce more complex shapes than traditional manufacturing. This allows the products to be highly personalized: a tooth that looks just like the one you lost, or an exact replica of a hip joint.

The process can save time and practically bring production of medical devices to the patient’s bedside. Although no one has exact numbers, University of Michigan biomedical engineering professor Scott Hollister believes about several dozen medical centers in the country now use 3-D printers in some form.  

Teeth, Limbs, and Hearing Aids

3-D printing is already widely used for body parts -- usually made of plastic or metal -- that come in contact with the body but don’t enter the bloodstream. These include teeth, hearing aid shells, and prosthetic limbs.

“In the past, a dental crown had to be fabricated in a lab, which takes a few days if not a few weeks and two to three trips to the dentist by the patient,” says Chuck Zhang, PhD, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Now a dentist can take a 3-D scan of a tooth and print the crown on the spot.

The technique gives amputees like Sydney an alternative to ugly and ill-fitting prosthetics. 3-D printing studios often collaborate with clients to design stylized, artistic limbs the user wants to show off -- not hide.  

Zhang and his colleagues at Georgia Tech are working with military veteran amputees to correct their prosthetics’ notoriously poor fit. His team is using 3-D-printed materials to create a prosthetic socket that adapts to the body’s changing fluid levels. It will tighten or loosen as needed so the limb doesn’t fall off or become painfully uncomfortable.

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