3d printing & The Medical Industry

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3D Printing & The Medical Industry

An in-depth analysis of 3DP’S potential impact on health care

Nancy Bota, Ethan Coppenrath, Danying Li, Michael Manning


This paper analyzes 3D Printing’s potential impact on three sub-sectors of the medical industry: orthopedics, prosthetics and regenerative medicine. 3DP threatens to disrupt existing value chains and suppliers while allowing possible backward integration for existing hospitals and practicing doctors by giving them access to low cost and high quality fabrication of implants and prosthetics through highly customizable 3DP.

3D printing is a term used to describe several different technologies and techniques used to create 3D objects from rendered 3D computer models. Currently there are 8 different technologies, which perform this function in a variety of different ways. This paper will focus on the most current version of 3D printing called 3DP, but we will now explore the history of each of these technologies in order to show the evolution of 3DP.

Technology Development & Background


Charles Hull created 3D printing in 1984. Not yet known as 3D printing, Hull had developed a technique known as stereolithography (SL). Like all 3D printing processes stereolithography is an additive manufacturing process. A resin or photopolymer is dispersed and layered multiple times in a cross section of the original design, slowly building the desired design one micro layer at a time. The layers of resin are each hardened by being exposed to a UV laser. After the part is successfully traced and layered it is coated in another layer of photosensitive resin and cured in a UV oven. Hull patented the technique in 1986 and went on to found 3D Systems and developed the first commercially available 3D printing machines.

Fused Deposition Modeling:

The next technology to emerge in the additive manufacturing space was FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling. FDM was developed by Scott Crump in the 1980’s and eventually made its commercial debut in the 1990’s. Although FDM uses polymers similar to SL the production process is quite different. FDM uses an extrusion nozzle, which heats polymers and distributes in small beads layer by layer, eventually building a complete structure. The nozzle can move both horizontally and vertically allowing it to place beads in any position. FDM is able to use a variety of polymers which each have their own unique applications. These polymers all harden as soon as they are extruded, which allows FDM to easily build on the polymer beads. Crump went on to found Stratasys Inc. which is the owner of the FDM process patent.

Selective Laser Sintering:

Selective Laser Sintering or SLS was also developed in the 1980’s. SLS uses a high powered laser to bond material powders into 3D shapes as provided by the computer. It currently uses glass, metal, ceramic or glass powders as inputs. SLS has a great advantage over the first two mentioned techniques as it allows for high productivity, no needed supports, and is able to use a variety of material inputs, which expand its uses.

3D Microfabrication:

Another technique being used is 3D microfabrication. This production process currently only yields finished products around 100nm and under. The process uses a gel composite and a laser. The desired object is traced in 3D by the laser inside the gel, which causes only the areas touched by the laser to harden. The remaining gel is washed away leaving the final product.

Electron Beam Melting:

Electron Beam Melting or EBM is an additive manufacturing process, which layers metal powder in accordance to a 3D CAD model and then uses an electron beam to melt the layers together creating solid metal parts. This process currently favors using Titanium alloys in production.

3D Printing (3DP):

3DP describes a process of 3D printing in which successive layers of powder and binding material are ‘printed’ across the cross section of a model. Developed at MIT, It is currently recognized as the fastest 3D printing technology and the only technology, which allows for full color printing. 3DP is characterized by its similarity to inkjet printing. It is currently the most flexible of the technologies allow for a variety of materials and is even being adapted by several start-ups for use as a consumer product. The technology allows for the use of any material available in powder form, which provides a scope previous technologies have lacked. 3DP has also been developed to allow for scaled production, which gives users the capability to efficiently and cost effectively use 3DP as a manufacturing tool. The technology has been licensed by six different companies including: ExtrudeHone, Soligen, Specific Surface Corp, TDK Corp, Therics, and Z Corp.

Industry Sub-Sector:

Although 3D printing has been around since the early 1980s, the quality has increased dramatically in recent years and the prices are just beginning to drop. According to Pete Basiliere, a research director at consulting firm Gartner, there will be 300,000 3D printers on the market by 2011 due to more affordable price. In the coming years, 3D printing may become so advanced—and mainstream—that virtually any medical centre would have a use for it.

3D Printing or 3DP technology has far reaching implications and will have distinct impacts on a number of industries. This paper will focus on how 3DP will affect the medical industry and more specifically three distinct sub-sectors: orthopedics, prosthetics, and regenerative medicine.


Orthopedics as a sub-sector of the health care industry makes up around 3% of total health care spending accounting for about 75 billion of the nearly 2.5 trillion total spent in 2009 (1, 2). According to the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery there are 20,400 actively practicing orthopedic surgeons in the USA with 650 completing orthopedic residencies each year. 3DP can potentially have a great impact on orthopedics and orthopedic surgery in two very distinct ways: new patient specific ways of fabricating orthopedic implants as well as large cost advantages.

3DP allows for patient specific implants to be customizable and quickly produced in a way not currently available. At present a patient’s orthopedic physician or surgeon works with a team and fabrication lab to create implants for operations, for example a hip replacement. The hip must be customized to each patient and because of this the process is long, involves a number of parties, and is extremely costly. 3DP’s effects on orthopedics will be discussed in further depth later in the paper.   


Similar to orthopedics and in many ways overlapping prosthetics is the second medical sub- sector that will be affected by 3DP technology. Prosthetics involves the development and production of replacements for missing body parts. Prosthetics is a technologically advanced sub-sector, which has integrated robotics complex materials science and a variety of offered products from replacement limbs, to fully articulating robotic hands. 3DP’s largest impact on prosthetics will be the ability to create highly customized and detailed parts at a much lower cost. 3DP also allows for the use of a much wider variety of materials in the production of prosthetics giving doctors a wider variety of products to choose from.  

Regenerative Medicine

The last sub-sector this paper will address is regenerative medicine or more specifically the practice of synthetic organ generation and tissue engineering. As of 2006 cumulative revenue for this sub-sector was only 300-400 million, which is indeed small compared to overall spending on the health care industry. The sector is made up of 150+ small to mid-size firms spread across the globe mostly hosted in the USA and Asia. 3DP is currently being used by a small number of firms in this space to layer in vivo or living cells onto gel compounds in order to ‘print’ synthetic organs.

Technology Development & Industry Trends

The global medical equipment industry was valued at USD 280 billion in 2009, and is forecasted to grow by more than 8% annually for the next seven years to exceed USD 490 billion in 2016. There are several reasons as to why the medical industry is expected to grow so much in the coming years. As people continue to live longer lives, it is ensured that there will be a steady demand for medical equipment and healthcare services. As long as awareness, affordability and improving health infrastructure remain under penetrated in emerging economies, there will be a huge opportunity for growth. And finally, the fact that most demand for healthcare is not linked to discretionary consumer spending will ensure that the medical industry will continue to grow.

The graph below shows how the number of patents in the medical device industry has grown since 1995.

As previously mentioned, the medical industry is still in the growth stage. 3D printing is a fairly new technology, and thus has yet to disrupt the medical device industry. The figure below illustrates this point; while the medical devices industry continues to grow 3D printing is still in the developmental stage. While traditional device users have another 20-30 years before this technology is developed, they should keep an eye on the advances of 3D printing. With promises to be a cheaper, safer, and quicker alternative, 3-D printing is sure to progress from only an emerging technology to a disruptive technology.

Medical devices



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