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3D printing is a newly popularised and innovative technique for producing a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model. Its an additive manufacturing process, rather than a subtractive. Subtractive processes carve away excess material from blanks. Additive processes build objects using layering techniques. This is typically achieved by laying down a large number of thin layers successively, of a particular substance, to recreate the original model to scale.

Imagine downloading a set of plans from the Internet for just about any solid object that you wish, adding the correct base materials to your 3-D printing machine and printing the object of your desire in your home or office. This is what 3D printing is capable of delivering in the near future. As well as drastically reducing production costs, 3D printing has also been recently been hailed as “the harbinger of sustainability”, with heavy research into using the most recyclable plastic filaments in the creation process.

Whilst 3D printing has been around, in one form or another, for well over a decade, it has only recently become something of a buzzword in the surgical industry. This innovative technology is being used in many different ways for everything from reconstructive surgery to brain surgery. 3D printers are currently producing casts for broken bones which are capable of healing the fracture up to 40% faster than a standard plaster and gauze cast. This is achieved via a built-in device that delivers low intensity ultrasound pulses, which was only recently discovered to hasten bone regeneration.

There have also been several reported cases, in the last 12 months, of successful surgical operations using 3D printing technology. These include the reshaping of a patients face after a motorcycle accident left him severely disfigured, and the replication of a baby’s brain that suffered with a form of aggressive epileptic seizures; enabling surgeons to study the area of his brain which was affected, by first producing a 3D printed replica. This process has been referred to as ‘surgical preparation via simulation’ as it enables surgeons to be prepared for every possibility before surgery has even begun.

Just last month in China, a 12 year old suffering with cancer had the very first operation of its kind. Surgeons at Beijing's Peking University Hospital removed a tumour in the second vertebra of the boy's neck and they then replaced the bone with a 3D-printed implant between the first and third vertebrae. After spending more than two months laying on his back, it’s believed that this groundbreaking surgery will enable the boy to walk again.

Image Source: Manufacture of surgical instruments at Surgical Holdings.

In February 2014, the Journal of Surgical Research published a study conducted by scientific researchers looking into the viability of 3D printing surgical instruments. The study showed that 3D printers are capable of producing sterile and durable surgical instruments at a cost of about 10 percent of the price of current stainless steel surgical instruments.

So now that 3D printed organs skulls and vertebrae can literally be a part of us, and research has shown how manufacturing costs can be drastically lowered, 3D printing is an emerging solution for a number of real world problems. The next step for the surgical industry should be to ensure that these processes and techniques are used more widely across the globe as the costs fall and as the design and manufacturing tools improve.

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