3D Printing in Life Sciences

The medical device industry has a proven and storied history of innovation. One of the more recent trends in that evolution is the concept of additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Unlike traditional manufacturing involving machining, additive manufacturing does not remove material from a bare piece of material. Rather, 3D printing involves adding successive layers of material to form a 3D object. As we learn more about 3D printing, the things we make using this new technology will become bigger and bolder — from a 3D printed bus in Washington, D.C., to an entire building in Dubai.

3D Printing In Life Sciences Manufacturing

The concept has made an impact in the life sciences community. While medical device companies will see the largest short term benefit, pharmaceutical companies may reap rewards as well. Organovo, which designs bioprinted human tissue models used for testing new drugs, recently developed a model of human liver tissue that lasts over a month — a vast improvement over previous tissue models, which lasted mere hours. Bioprinted human tissue, could shorten drug development timeline from years to months, which could reduce research and development costs for pharmaceutical companies.

The benefits of 3D printing are certainly not limited to pharma. Scientists at New York based startup, Epibone, have discovered methods to create human bone using stem cells in conjunction with 3D printed scaffolding. Epibone has successfully implanted their bone replacements in pigs and other animals.

Are Medical Device Manufacturers Ready for 3D Printing?

Yet, despite the hype, the excitement about 3D printing isn’t universal. In our focus groups, several medical device manufacturers expressed reluctance to incorporate the new technology in their processes. One customer, an orthopedic implant manufacturer, said “The challenge with orthopedics is that you have a patient under anesthesia, so there’s no reprinting an ill fitting knee replacement. It’s gotta be perfect the first time.”

Perfecting a 3D printed object is no simple task. I recently spent several hours trying to print a small elephant to decorate my cubicle, and ended up with several blobs of melted plastic and a half empty bottle of Tylenol.

Finding professionals with expertise to support 3D printing operations for products that need extreme precision can also prove challenging. Developing expertise in using 3D printers takes time, but there aren’t enough experts in the field yet. For the time being, those who want to incorporate 3D printing find ways to accomplish that. One medical device customer surmised, “We could staff up, train and retain people to do nothing but observe, learn and practice, but we choose to go to a third party because they’ve got a full warehouse of nothing but 3D printers.”

What Does the Future Hold for 3D Printing in Medical Device Manufacturing?

Still, this concept is exciting for the life sciences industry as it creates the possibility of specific medical devices fitted to individual patients and even mass customization. With the challenges of implementing 3D printing in medical device manufacturing, it may take some time before the technology picks up enough momentum to be a “wave,” but at the least, we can call the 3D printing trend a steadily rising tide.

If you’re a manufacturer currently using 3D printing in aspects of your business, I’d love to hear from you! Please share your thoughts about 3D printing in the life sciences industry and manufacturing.