It’s hard to believe that “3D Printing” is now over 30 years old as a manufacturing technology, having started with the original stereolithography (SLA) process in the early 1980s. Almost as unbelievable is that its application to clinical care became established within roughly five years (over 25 years ago!) with one novel company established in Golden, CO that catered to craniomaxillofacial (CMF) reconstruction, and another in Leuven, Belgium that catered to orthopaedic surgery. These surgical subspecialties, focusing on the bony skull and skeleton, were ideal cases for hard plastic models made from photopolymerized resin. Pioneering medical device companies soon developed three broad categories of applications for 3D printing from the CMF and orthopaedic experience: computer-aided modeling (CAM), patient-specific surgical implants, and virtual surgical planning (VSP).
As the 3D printing industry underwent a revolution in new technologies, materials, and capabilities in the 25 years to follow, so did the scope of medical applications that expanded from CMF and orthopaedics to cardiac and vascular specialties, pediatric surgery, neurosurgery, surgical oncology, and radiation oncology, not to forget early adoption years ago in restorative dentistry and hearing aids. In fact, it is hard to name a clinical specialty these days that doesn’t explore the numerous benefits offered by 3D printing. It has enabled heroic surgery like “jaw in a day” and facial transplantation as well as much more pragmatic improvements in medical communication, cost savings, and training.
Perhaps some of the most exciting aspects of medical 3D printing is the widespread democratization of its power that comes with constantly greater availability of cheaper, better, faster printers. 3D printing is now no longer a centralized corporate game, but a tool making its way into local hospitals and empowering individual physician entrepreneurs to leverage this technology in their daily clinical work. But we have only scratched the surface and will explore much further in our future blog posts.
—by Vladimir Zuzukin, M.D.