Implants and dental prostheses, perhaps soon whole organs – 3D printing opens up many opportunities for medicine but may also entail new challenges. How far can we go and what are the requirements?
3D printing or, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), describes the fabrication of objects by building them up from one or several materials. Rather than milling down a piece of material to the desired shape, during AM a computer continuously guides the targeted addition of material. AM has established itself in many fields as the technology of choice due to several advantages:
- objects are produced by adding slices (cross sections) on top of each other;
- slices are generated from electronic CAD files that are universal to all AM techniques;
- no special tools are required;
- mechanical and topological properties evolve simultaneously;
- workpieces can be manufactured in any orientation; and
- clamping can be omitted entirely.
AM is particularly advantageous when item numbers are low and one piece differs significantly from the other, as well as in producing prototypes or alternative models. Currently functional objects can be produced and the range of applicable materials has broadened. Not only simple plastics but also metals and ceramics etc. are now available for AM.
Probe dentures and organs
Since each individual human body is unique, AM introduces many opportunities to the medical field. Tailor-made guidance devices and tools for operations can be made individually. Implants may be fabricated ready-to-fit. For example, 3D printed probe dentures can be tried out and subsequently modified. Doctors and patients can easily introduce medical or cosmetic changes. Approaching the final result step by step allows significantly shorter fabrication time for prostheses or other aids that need to fit perfectly.
Furthermore, the vision of ‘printing’ individually adjusted organs is not purely utopic any more. In the same vein, new possibilities emerge for ‘tailor-made pills’. Novel food products may contain exactly defined ingredients in any deliberately chosen shape.
No advantages without drawbacks
These ideas are currently in different stages of development but have already raised many hopes. Nevertheless, problems emerge with regard to technical requirements such as material compatibility. In addition, in order to produce a 3D print of any part of a patient’s body, a huge amount of data must be generated with the help of medical diagnostic imaging techniques. Problems of adaptation and image resolution have to be taken into account. In clinical practice the smooth collaboration between engineers and medical doctors needs to be ensured. Furthermore, questions of privacy protection and intellectual property rights arise. The impact on professions such as orthopaedic or dental technicians must be considered.
One must also not disregard far reaching ethical problems which may arise. For example, can it be justified, and if so, under which conditions, to develop prosthetic support that enables performances exceeding those considered to be normal –so-called human enhancement?
In this project for the European Parliament the ITA collaborates with the German ITAS, the Dutch Rathenau Instituut and the Danish Board of Technology, as well as with a number of external experts. ITA’s main role is to establish the technical state of the art and to identify trends and problem areas.