3D printing has started a revolution in many industries, providing a manufacturing model based on production decentralization, highly individualized end-results, and the potential to scale processes.


The healthcare and life science industries have already been hit by the 3D printing wave, and use cases are increasing in number as new techniques and materials are being discovered and entering the market, with a focus on the personalization of care. A recent blog posted by Galina Spasova discusses the role of 3D printing across different industries. In this blog, however, we are looking at the transformative power that this technology brings to the healthcare and life science sectors.

A Growing Market

According to our Survey, 6% of healthcare providers in Europe have already adopted 3D printing, while 17% of respondents are planning to start investing in 3D printing in the next 12 months. On the life science side, investments are supported by greater scalability and more resources allocated to innovation. Namely, 13% of life science organizations in Europe have adopted additive manufacturing in their business and a 12% are planning adoption this year.

France, the U.K., Germany, and the Nordics are ahead in the adoption of 3D printing technologies, where digital maturity is a proxy of implementation. As early as 2014, Cambridge University Hospitals provided a centralized 3D printing service available to medical and surgical staff, used to create prototypes based on MRI scans to study patient.

Cast in a New Mold

The majority of healthcare providers in Europe already investing or planning investments in 3D printing head toward a company owned 3D printer in-house. This expensive model in terms of capabilities and skills is often backed by innovation and acceleration centers providing the required know-how and agility to experiment in this environment.

Examples of this approach can be found in New South Wales, where the first 3D printing laboratory in-house hospital was established at Wollongong Private Hospital in their “Innovation Hub.” A good number of providers are outsourcing or plan to outsource 3D printing to an external partner, while maintaining the design operations in house.

Only a smaller percentage of providers are taking part in collaborative and shared 3D printing network and production processes. As an example, the University Hospital of Basel has entered into a 3D printing alliance with U.K.-based medical technology firm, axial3D, to enhance process management at the hospital’s 3D print lab.

Healthcare at the Highest Personalization Rate

Implants, prosthetics, and anatomical models for study and simulation are the most common use cases deployed in European healthcare. At the Morriston Hospital, the surgical team developed 3D printed ribs, ensuring perfect fit and chest functionality for a 71-year old cancer sufferer. They had used the volumetric CT image data sets of the unaffected side of the patient’s chest to duplicate the anatomical shape and rebuild the bone using the 3D printer to match the area.

Very complicated cases, in which an assessment of surgery feasibility and side effects is needed before starting the operation, have demonstrated the value of 3D printing and how it can be used by surgeons and physicians to practice complex surgical operations to ensure that no damage is done.

The Department of Urology and Kidney Transplantation at the University Hospital (CHU) of Bordeaux, France, was able to print out multimaterialized and specifically colored kidney models detailed down to the very last artery and blood vessel. Moreover, when patients are faced with the 3D printed kidney, it is easier for them to understand and accept the surgical procedure, allowing a more informed doctor-patient interaction.


3D printing in healthcare
The engineer demonstrates the heart printed on a 3d printer

Medical Adherence and Effectiveness by Design: How Does it Taste?

3D printing is being explored as a manufacturing method for on-demand, personalized medicine, challenging traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing processes in providing patients with tailored products adapting to their healthcare needs and personal preferences. In 2015, the U.S. FDA approved the first 3D printed tablet, Spritam, with a layered and porous design specifically made for epilepsy.

3D-printed structures are unique and very difficult to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods, and prove extremely impactful for patients suffering from seizures, or for children, the elderly, and people with medicine-intake problems.

3D printing also allows the combination of different medicines and compounds into a single pill, called “polypills,” releasing the right drug at the right time through intelligent design, reducing the number of tablets that one person has to swallow, which is especially important in geriatric populations. This could reduce the risk of medication errors (underdose, overdose, interference) and side effects, while improving treatment efficacy and adherence.

Bio-Printing and its Way to Go

The 3D printed heart at the Tel Aviv University this year has attracted a lot of attention. But, despite the buzz and impressive potential, bioprinting technologies are not there yet to provide a scalable contribution to the life science arena. Efforts in this direction are fostering the creation of research centers, partnerships, and networks dedicated to the topic.

What is the Future of 3D Printing in Healthcare and Life Science?

The technological potential of 3D printing is creating opportunities across a variety of use cases, moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach toward the decentralization of manufacturing and personalization of products and services at the point of care. 3D printing has a very high patient engagement potential, as it allows a horizontal approach to designing treatments, operations, and medication aligned with individual requirements as no other technology.

Within the Horizon 2020, the European Commission is supporting research to help manufacturers remain competitive in a growing market for personalized medical products, but an EU regulatory framework for 3D printing in healthcare is yet to be developed. Moreover, printing methods, ink types, costs and the ability to scale production and create sustainable business models able to combine 3D printing with other technologies represent key challenges.

Interestingly, our data suggests that healthcare providers and life science organizations that have adopted or are planning to adopt 3D printing are also displaying greater adoption and plans towards cloud, robotics, and IoT technologies. This trend emphasizes how digitally mature organizations relying on cloud infrastructure and investing in innovation accelerators are ahead in identifying manufacturing opportunities to scale, decentralize, and design more efficient production processes through an intelligent use of data and technological resources.

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