What happens if there is not a good medical device solution for patients because of high costs or just inadequate options? Instead of accepting that this is simply one of the difficulties patients and doctors face when using medical devices, some innovative thinkers find another way. Recently, this “way” has taken the form of a 3D printer.

Albert Chi, a Johns Hopkins trauma surgeon, used a 3D printer, sheets of colored plastic and information discovered online to create a prosthetic hand for approximately $20 according to The Baltimore Sun. Upon fitting a two-year-old child with a 3D printed hand, the youngster was able to pick up an object in just a few minutes. This success has created a network of volunteer medical professionals, designers, parents and 3D printing supporters who are hoping to provide hands at no cost to any child in need of one. Such 3D printed hands are especially useful for children, because they frequently outgrow prostheses creating a challenge for parents who cannot afford to replace them every year at costs up to $40,000.

In addition to prosthetic hands, Forbes recently reported that a 3D printed vertebra has been successfully implanted in a 12-year-old boy by doctors at Peking University. Because the boy had a malignant tumor in his spinal cord, the doctors needed to replace a cancerous vertebra in his neck. So, they used titanium powder (a common orthopedic implant material) in a 3D printer to create a new vertebra to take the place of the old one.

Besides lower costs, 3D printing provides the benefit of flexibility so that prostheses and implants can be printed in any shape. 3D printing involves placing layer upon layer of material such as plastic or metal in a unique pattern to produce a 3D object from a digital model. Instead of trying to make a traditional implant or prosthesis work, a medical device can be created via 3D printing that better matches the needs of a patient. In the case of the 12-year-old boy, doctors created a custom implant with tiny pores in it to allow the bones to grow into the implant and secure it without cement and screws.

Prostheses and orthopedic implants are expected to represent some of the fastest growing segments in the coming years. In the U.S. alone, demand for implantable medical devices is projected to increase 7.7% annually to $52 billion in 2015 according to Freedonia. In addition to the needs of children, this trend will be driven by the Silver Economy in which older populations seek more products and services to help them age well. Consequently, the results from the initial use of 3D printing are likely to pale in comparison to what the next few years will produce.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti