Trends of 3D Printing in Medical Industry

Trends of 3D Printing in Medical Industry


  • Content
  • Keywords
  • Introduction
  • Development of 3D Printing
    • Its Invention
    • The Trend of 3D Printing.
  • Dominant Companies in the 3D Printing Industry
  • Specific Application of 3D Printing in the Medical Industry
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices


There have been tremendous advances to the manufacturing sector since the advent of 3D printing technology in the 1980s. This technology’s steady advancement has allowed the development of “ground-breaking” prototypes in the automobile, aerospace, medical, and other industries. Via the analysis of secondary sources, this study attempted to assess the effect of 3d printing in the medical industry. It was discovered that major advancements had been made in the development of human tissues, lungs, and body pieces. However, there have been significant problems in the longevity of certain organs as well as the growth of complex organs like the heart. However, there is enormous promise in this area, and medical researchers will undoubtedly continue to make groundbreaking discoveries.

Trends of 3D Printing in Medical Industry

Key Words

3D Printing: It is the method of turning computer models into 3D physical structures of some form. Often referred to as additive engineering.

Stereolithography: The technology that allows for the development of 3D plastic prototypes.

Product life cycle: An observational market paradigm that describes the phases of a commercial product’s development cycle.

Intellectual Property Rights: Rights obtained by a person due to a creation of their mind

Patents: Exclusive rights given to an inventor for limited periods in exchange for disclosure of the invention

Prototype: An initial sample of a product developed to test a process or a concept

Prosthetics: Artificial body parts


3D printing has had a great impact in the manufacturing industry throughout the years. For a long time, this technology was preserved for large businesses due to the prohibitive costs. However, in recent years the cost of lower-end printers has drastically reduced, bringing this technology to the mainstream. For instance, the cost of consumer-level printers has declined from $110,000 to a low of $350. These machines must have made their way into fashion catwalks, hospitals, kitchens, school and other institutions bringing immense changes in the world.

This research report seeks to identify the trend of 3D printing in the manufacturing technology currently and the influence it has had on the medical field. Therefore, the research shall utilize various secondary sources such as peer-reviewed journals and books to evaluate the trend, pricing, patents, IPRs, standards investigations, the product life cycle, and the future prospects of the 3D printing technology.

Development of 3D Printing

  • Its Invention

According to Corbett and Katz (2012), Charles Hull developed the stereolithography in 1984, which comprised a layered media that build up 3D objects from a digital file. However, this technology and its systems were very expensive and were largely used in the development of automotive, aerospace and medical products. One of the oldest 3D printing methods, which still remains popular, is SLA (Stereolithography) and is used in rapid prototyping. 3D Systems developed the method in 1992. Apart from creating prototypes for clients, the company also sells SLA machines for use in various enterprises and manufacturing. Other companies such as Stratasys also developed and patented the FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) process used in 3D printing. There are numerous companies that provide cheap and quickly produced prototypes (Yu, 2010., p.10).

There are various real-life examples of projects that would have not materialized were it not for the invention of 3D printing. For instance, an engineering company Solid Concepts developed a 3D printed gun and has endeavoured to demonstrate that it works effectively as other guns from factories. The project coordinator has already proven that it can fire 50 rounds and plans to demonstrate that it can do 500 rounds (Daileda, 2013). On the other hand, DUS architects are in the process of developing a house using a purpose-built 60 metres tall printer. The developers have already started the production process and plan to complete the entire fascia by the end of the year (O’Ceallaigh, 2013).

In the medical field, patients could be saved the long waits for organ transplants with improvement in the development of 3D-printed organs. In the recent past, regenerative medicine experts have been able to develop tiny organ chunks. 3D printing technology has provided precision and speed in the development of replacement skin and body parts (Beane, 2010). These experts hope that eventually they will be able to develop full-size organs such as kidneys, livers and hearts. The use of 3D printing in medicine experiences varied levels of difficulties that range from the easiest being development of flat structures such as the skin, developing tubular structures such as blood vessels, hollow organs such as the stomach, to organs with many organ interactions and complex functions such as the heart. However, there was significant progress in 1999 when a group of medics developed and implanted bladders into a group of patients (Hsu, 2013).

With the increased confidence that medics could use 3D print human organs, a group of scientists from China initiated a program that resulted in the successful printing of several living kidneys in 2002. While printing in the past had been done using bio-ink, the replicated kidney tissue had was not vital. This necessitated the creation of living or vital organs, it would rule out the possibility of 3D printed transplants. Therefore, the Chinese breakthrough was significant. However, there were still reservations about the suitability of such organs for transplantation. Although they were living, they only had a lifespan that lasted four months, which was a hindrance to offering permanent solutions for patients with kidney failure (Druce-McFadden, 2013).

  • The Trend of 3D Printing

The recent developments in 3D printing has seen the development of phenomenal equipment that range from shoes, bikes, exoskeletons, clothes, skulls, guns, amongst many other things. Even President Obama has acknowledged that it is a revolutionary technology that everything operates and save his country’s economy. Recently, the hottest trends in 3D printing have involved experiments in making colossal objects. This involves huge time and money resources, which is a possible venture. However, the main challenge is the physical limitations of the existent 3D printers available in the market (Estes, n.d.).

Nonetheless, there have been significant and exciting innovations in 3D printing hardware. Young innovators are leading the way, especially college students that conducting experiments on devices with ‘out-of-the-box’ printing capacities. For instance, an approach that heavily borrows the robotic arms techniques, deposits polymers in a precise and organized manner rather than screwing or welding. Another method is named the MPTP (Mobile Printing Test Platform) that lumbers around the structure’s perimeter and pours material that makes the walls thus making layers of the structure. This forms the beginning of a revolutionary work by designers and architects. As the technology increases, their imagination is bound to explode and exponentially increase their ambition. Conversely, there has been a substantial increase in the attention that 3D printing as a topic attracts, as indicated below in this chart.

Trends of 3D Printing in Medical Industry

Figure 1: Google topic trends indicating increased attention in ‘3D printing’

In future, the 3D printing technology is expected to grow to allow the printing of precious metals such as gold. Furthermore, the various players should develop low-cost techniques for usage with commonly available materials such as plastic and paper. In the medical field, the technology’s growth should lead to the development of vital replacements human organs and body parts to be used in transplants. 3D printing is a relatively new industry that is bound to grow rapidly with the increasing adoption by different users. It is a highly competitive industry that stems from process knowledge, pricing, product development, and the capacity to match customers’ needs. Some of the major players include Stratasys, Objet, MakerBot, HP Development Co., 3D Systems and EOS GmbH. On the other hand, the global market in the 3D printing is forecasted to hit the 2.99 billion dollar mark by 2018 due to introduction of new applications, approaches and technologies (PRWeb, 2012). Therefore, 3D printing is still in the initial stages of the growth stage in its life cycle. As will be learnt, 3D’s success, especially in medical applications, is very much reliant on continuous research by established firms. In as such, very few medics or hospitals have been able to apply it to help in addressing variant health concerns by their patients. Notably, even with the development of such organs as kidneys and the heart, it is postulated that the technology will not be used to treat humans for at least 10 more years (International Conference Focusing on Polymers Used in the Medical Industry, & Rapra Technology Limited, 2001). This period will be used for proper and sufficient development of technology as is required for any curative or rehabilitative measure applied in humans. This lengthy period is also a result of the investors’ reluctance to commit their money in projects that are not likely to promise a continuous revenue stream for at least a decade. Such measures are likely to hinder the development. Overall, these factors point to a product that is yet to reach full market acceptance.  In the context of the product life cycle, this is a product that is yet to reach maturity and is very much still in the development phase.

Trends of 3D Printing in Medical Industry

Figure 2: 3D Printing Technology Product Life Cycle

Dominant Companies in the 3D Printing Industry

One of the most dominant firms that deal in 3D printing in medical research and practice is Organovo. The company develops human tissues through its bioprinting system that enables it to create 3D tissues that suitably reproduces native tissues. Its bio-printing technology is based on an automated platform that allows fabrication, testing and systematic identification of tissue geometrics in order to select a winning combination through functional and histological results (PRWeb, 2012). It focuses on the development of various disease models and tissues for therapeutic or research uses. So far, Organovo has been able to produce liver-tissue prototypes that have similar features to the original tissues. However, their liver tissues can only be live for five days. The company’s ultimate objective is to develop a full-size human liver. However, Organovo, just like other 3D printing companies, have to use cells from the patient in question to make sure that the ‘outcome’ is fully compatible with the body system (Organovo, n.d.).

Organovo has a management team that has a combined experience of over 100 years in the industry. The management’s aim is to introduce drastic changes and be a leading innovation company in medical research. Currently, Organovo is experimenting with the 3D printing of blood vessels with a diameter of one millimetre. The company boasts of an enviable group of scientific advisers under its employment. This group consists of numerous scientific pioneers who have specialized in the field of tissue engineering. This group of advisors has published more than 600 journal articles on this topic between them. However, the company still faces some limitations in the lack of stable and safe materials and the availability of cells. The complex vascular structure made up of blood, organs, and tissues also presents a difficult environment for the developed tissues and organs to survive in the human body.

Specific Application of 3D Printing in the Medical Industry

Apart from the development of human tissues, the 3D printing technology has been instrumental in the creation of body parts. For instance, medical practitioners have been able to develop an artificial ear for the treatment of congenital deformities such as microtia, which results from underdeveloped ears or replacing parts of an ear that have been lost through an accident or ailment. This provides a wonderful alternative to rib grafts that are normally painful, and results in-ears that are neither natural-looking functional. In this case, a normal human ear is scanned and a mould developed using the 3D printer. The mould is then injected with collagen that forms the scaffold for the development of cartilage (Chalcraft, 2013).

Additionally, this technology has been applied in the healthcare industry for some while. For instance, various firms have developed custom hearing aids as well as in the creation of alternatives to stationary dental brace (Gibson, 2006.p.61). For instance, Invisalign is a company that develops these alternatives and prints about 60,000 sets of custom-made moulds each day that a wearer can change fortnightly to realign their teeth. Furthermore, the technology has also found another application as a visualization tool in the planning stages of a surgery procedure. For instance, doctors can scan a fractured arm or a heart and print it to allow them to study the anatomy before the actual operation (Analoui, 2012.p.12-15). Additionally, there has been a case where an old lady obtained a new jaw after losing it to an infection. This was a good reprieve for the octogenarian who could not undergo reconstructive surgery because of her advanced age.

3D printing technology has immense potential to disabled persons. For example, Magic Arms has developed assistive devices that assist a child who was born with arthrogryposis to use her hands. This technology has widely revolutionized the use of prosthetics (Beutel et al 2000.p.128). Currently, various 3D printed prosthetics coverings can be personalized and worn with the existent prosthetic. In this case, the complete leg is scanned to make sure the covering is symmetrical, and the customization is performed to ensure basic fairing (Chalcraft, 2013).


3D printing technology has immensely influenced the manufacturing industry, although it is still at the initial stages of the growth stage in its product life cycle. As noted in this study, the application of 3D technology in the medical industry has helped greatly in designing human body parts such as prosthetic limbs, repairing the skin, designing skulls, among other human organs. These have proved to be very efficient considered to formative means of organ development or replacement. Going forward, there is cause for excitement as the design and development of live organs such as the heart takes centre stage. We can all envision a situation where implants will be possible without the current level of effort and strain. The clearest thing now is that 3D technology is bound to have a much greater impact in the medical field that it is presently the case.

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