Trends in 3D printing for the medical industry

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No matter what name you use – 3D printing or additive manufacturing – this technology enables manufacturing of extremely complex geometries and structures in any shape and size, and often all in one piece.

May 5, 2014
Matt Hlavin

Three-dimensional printing is shaping our future, especially in the medical industry. Although 3D printing was invented more than 30 years ago, investment in the technology has soared in recent years as more and more companies see its potential to drive a new industrial revolution – one that enables businesses to get products to market faster than traditional manufacturing.

The medical industry uses 3D printing in many ways. For example, rp+m has printed skulls for surgeons around the world. They will send us a patient’s CT scan file and we will export those images into CAD software that our 3D printers can read and print. Doctors will use the skull prior to surgery to understand exact size and location, which will ultimately save time during procedures as well as reduce the opportunity for error.

Our sister company, JALEX Medical, uses 3D printing technology so customers can get products to market faster. Recently, engineers at JALEX designed a surgical tool based on an idea from a surgeon. With the 3D technology, we were able to print the tool, allowing the developer to hold, touch, and feel the idea in early product stages. The engineers designed and customized the medical tool exactly the way the surgeon requested. As our experts talk with doctors and surgeons, they work in CAD software to take ideas and create models.

In order to ensure the surgical tool fits and functions exactly they way the surgeon wants, we can quickly 3D print or additively manufacture one-offs of the device. If a dimension needs changing, we will make the alteration in the software and create a new prototype, saving time and money before production.

New material underway

rp+m collaborated with ExOne to create a material that has never been 3D printed before. In the past, similar material has been injection molded at Avon Lake, Ohio-based Thogus, another rp+m sister company, but customers couldn’t justify upfront tooling costs if they only needed 50 to100 parts per year.

The tungsten material can shield radiation in body imaging equipment without the need for lead, while keeping the same density. Lead is a hazardous material and the Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive in Europe will soon limit or ban its use there. Reports show the United States will soon follow.

rp±m technologies used

3DP Binder Jet – A liquid bonding agent selectively deposited to join powder. You can print multiple metal parts at once in various materials.

Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) – Metal parts with the most complex internal geometries are built layer-by-layer directly from 3D CAD data. This process is a superior prototyping tool as well.

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) – This additive manufacturing process lays down layers of material to process durable, quality, and cost-effective thermoplastic products with speedy turnaround.

PolyJet from Objet – Similar to an inkjet printer it uses layers of liquid photopolymer cured with UV lights. Print both hard and soft material at once and near-clear material.

Stereolithography (SLA) – This precise process uses lasers to cure thin layers of liquid plastic to create a detailed part and is best for prototypes or products that need to be made of flexible plastic with a polished surface.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – This process uses a laser to shape materials into a finished functional part. This is often used when prototypes or products require high detail and heat-resistance.

rp+m recently came up with a new design for a component that uses the tungsten material. rp+m research showed the part would function better than injection-molded pieces with a design that can only be made using 3D printing technology.

3D printing is moving past prototypes of surgical tools and medical devices. The trend is for end-use products to come straight off our machines.

Where will 3D printing go?

As the technology progresses and new material classes develop – including biomaterials, polymers, and metals – we will see applications and markets grow.

Dr. Ed Herderick, director of R&D at rp+m, sees a new paradigm for manufacturing by design. Companies in the additive industry are coming together to create, develop, and test new materials and processes, so the implantable devices and 3D printing organs sectors continue to inflate. In the near future, our team expects doctors and surgeons to 3D print every hip cup or knee replacement so it is completely customized to the patient’s own bone structure.

“The materials and processes for 3D manufacturing will continue to mature to the point where a new paradigm of manufacturing by design will emerge to replace the current paradigm of design for manufacturing processes,” Herderick says. “This will empower designers of engineering systems to create their machines and components with full freedom to choose approaches based on the end use performance criteria rather than limitations of manufacturing processes. As a result, new product designs will increasingly mimic the elegant design of nature maximizing performance and design content while minimizing waste. In the future, designers may use nature-inspired design to develop lighter, more streamlined parts and products, and increase efficiencies in industries such as oil and gas drilling, and aerospace.”


bout the author:
Matt Hlavin, is the CEO at rp+m and can be contacted at