Ever since it evolved from an early prototype that was nearly abandoned to a widespread marketplace available for any consumer, 3D printing has been helpful in some facet of nearly every domain. Researchers can use it to conveniently form unique designs, clothing manufacturers can both mass-produce whole lines of clothing and prototype more intricate articles without much effort, food manufacturers can whip up batches of food by funneling food through specialized printers, and the list will only become longer and longer as time goes on. One domain that may be considered to have benefited the most from this innovation is the entire medical domain: from printing medical equipment that can be cheaply created and sent in bulk to impoverished or medically lacking areas, to creating custom prosthetics for those in need, to even forming new organs that can be directly implanted into patients, its effects are certainly noticeable.
To start off, the production of medical devices may be one of the more obvious benefits, but by no means does that discredit the tremendous impact it has had. 3D printing allows the convenient production of prototypes, both in terms of physically creating it to see if it functions in practice and modifying it after the fact if the prototype has any flaws (it’s as simple as adjusting a model on a computer). This approach also allows for the models to be easily examined from every direction, both inside and outside; if necessary, it can also be disassembled into smaller parts, allowing for finer adjustments. Once it’s been finalized, it can be produced at the fraction of the cost of a regular piece of equipment with a significant increase in speed and a near-nonexistent loss in quality; as a result, there’s a sudden boom in equipment for the areas that lack the funds to obtain it otherwise. 3D printing makes the process more convenient for both the people creating the equipment and the people using the equipment.
Prosthetics are the next logical step when it comes to 3D printing in the medical field. After all, if there is a process that can create detailed objects for a pittance of money, someone would think about using it to replace an industry that also creates detailed objects for an overblown amount of money. However, cost is not the only benefit that comes with 3D printing, as it also allows for these same prosthetics to be customized for the customer’s convenience. It goes beyond making the color of a hand green instead of grey or adding some neat decal to the side of a leg; the proportions of a given prosthetic can be easily modified for whoever needs it, letting them feel exactly as comfortable and sturdy as possible. If a finger happens to be too long, it can be quickly modified and delivered. This applies to every body part that can conceivably require prosthetics: fingers, hands, arms, legs, even parts of the skull. When it comes to artificial limbs, the utilization of 3D printing only makes the entire process simpler and more efficient.
3D printing organs sounds closer to science fiction than reality. While the other listed products can be realized through sturdy plastic or metal, organs can hardly be replaced with nothing but inorganic material. The alternative is that living material, such as cells, are somehow involved in the printing process, and though that seems impossible, it has become a reality. The standard 3D printer isn’t able to produce organs, obviously, but for those specialized printers that can, they can take cells from the intended recipient and fuse them with a type of plastic that can exist inside and cooperate with the inner workings of a human. It is important to note that currently, these organs cannot be mass-produced, unlike the medical equipment and prosthetics detailed above, and only small or non-intricate pieces can be printed, such as skin, parts of the outer ear, and the trachea. However, these seemingly small pieces are paving the way for a future where larger and more intricate organs can not only be printed, but produced in a large-enough quantity to make a difference and save the lives of those who wouldn’t otherwise have organs.
This doesn’t even touch on the possibility of creating life-sized models with an exhaustive amount of detail, assembling molecules, and the myriad of other possibilities that exist within and outside the domain of medicine. As the years go by and more and more individuals use the technology for innovative purposes, the usefulness of 3D printing becomes limitless, and as long as it continues to inspire generations to come, it’s all for the better.