Three infant boys suffering from a rare disease greatly benefitted from the versatility of 3D printing. According to a new research published in “Science Translational Medicine,” the disease, tracheobronchomalacia, caused each of their windpipes to soften, which can eventually lead to an airway collapse and breathing failure. In the past, this disease lacked an adequate solution, and babies born with this condition generally had very little chance of surviving through young childhood. Today, however, 3D-printed medical innovations are drastically altering this once commonplace outcome. 

3D printer

In the above example, 3D-printed devices helped stent the airways of each boy through providing a sustainable, long-term support that could keep up with each child’s windpipe growth, according to the University of Michigan researchers cited in the study. Prior to this technology, severe cases of this disease often required young children to undergo high-risk treatments — which often times resulted in death, according to the study.

While this printing technology isn’t new, the way in which the medical community is using it is rapidly changing the medical device innovation process for the better. According to an annual survey conducted by Emergo Group in January, new product development was reported as among the top three challenges currently faced by medical device companies, along with an organization’s access to funding and navigation of regulatory issues. Listed below are just some of the leading medical fields that are integrating 3D printing in their creation and exploration of new medical devices:

Complex Implants
For manufacturing products in orthopedics and dental in particular, 3D printing allows the designers to hone in on a device’s intricate surface texture and complex design quirks. Using a variety of manufacturing materials, these printed implants can be created for a wide variety of uses and parts of the body. Last year, for instance, China’s Peking University was able to successfully implant a 3D-printed human vertebra, which represented the agility and precision of using this printing technology.

Long-Term Care
Studies show the vast majority of older adults want to “age in place,” which means they aim to live in their homes and communities safely and comfortably as they advance in age. In order to stay mobile later in life, older adults need to feel healthy from the inside, out. That’s the thought behind using low-cost 3D printing technology to assist patients with rehabilitation following a joint injury or mobility disability, according to Curtin University researchers.

 This type of technology relies on sensors embedded during 3D printing into rehabilitation equipment worn by patients, such as leg braces. With sensors in place, medical professionals can log and examine how a person is moving, helping pinpoint specific areas of difficulty and struggle. To stay independent, the ability to effectively heal after an injury is essential, and this kind of technology can do just that.

Clinical Studies
For innovations moving through the testing and prototyping phase, 3D printing is useful tool for creating devices where design changes are relatively low-cost, and products are easy to mass produce. In the medical industry in particular, clinical testing and evaluation is an essential part of bringing a product idea to life. With a rapid prototype process, this phase can move more quickly than when using traditional building methods.