The advantages of 3D printing are just at the infancy of being realized. Within both the medical device development space as well as within healthcare, this technology stands to make an impact like perhaps no other technology. When you look ahead at the opportunities to custom 3D print surgical tools on-demand within a surgical OR, use human stem cells in an effort to “print” organs for transplant into a person’s body, or mix materials and pharmaceuticals to enable the ability to print new drug delivery solutions, you can see how important the potential this technology represents.
With that in mind, one of the more recent advances is the transformation of the large industrial-sized 3D printers to a more manageable desktop version. These units offer the opportunity to put a 3D printer on a design engineer’s desktop rather than in a dedicated space. Additionally, the price point is substantially lower than a larger machine. For healthcare, it could be the step required to put a 3D printer in every doctor’s office.
To get more information on this exciting technology, I was able to interview JP Shipley, a strategist at Formlabs, a company that develops one of these desktop-sized 3D printers. He shares insights on 3D printing in both the healthcare space as well as in medtech development. He also speaks on materials, concerns, prototyping, and what’s ahead for the technology.
Sean Fenske: Thank you for taking time to speak with me on 3D printing in healthcare and medtech. Let’s start with the offering your company has. What is unique about your 3D printer?
JP Shipley: The Form 2 is the most advanced desktop 3D printer ever created and the easiest to operate. We’re unique in that we’ve designed the entire ecosystem to work together. We provide the whole ecosystem to our customers, from the printers to the resins, proprietary software to best-in-class customer support.
More specifically, whereas most desktop 3D printers use a heated extruder head to melt a plastic filament and then deposit it in layers, forming a thermally-bonded model, the Form 2 uses a precisely-guided laser to polymerize a liquid resin, achieving unmatched quality and precision.
Fenske: What are the advantages of a desktop version of a 3D printer?
Shipley: Until relatively recently, 3D printing technology was only available to large institutions able to afford the refrigerator-sized 3D printers that often cost upwards of $100,000. The desktop 3D printing revolution has ushered in a new era of faster, cheaper product development by allowing engineers and designers to rapidly iterate on their concepts without having to send files out to a service bureau or print shop and wait for the results.
Fenske: Is your 3D printer being used in the healthcare space?
Shipley: Our printer is currently being used in a lot of exciting healthcare applications. By far, one of our favorite applications is the one being used by Autonomic Technologies, a medical device manufacturer that uses our printer to 3D print cranial models for surgical implant planning, using CT data of the patient’s own specific anatomy to provide the surgeon with an unparalleled planning guide and patient education tool.
Fenske: Is your 3D printer being used in the development of medical technology (i.e., engineering side)?
Shipley: One of the most interesting projects we’ve seen is the automatic suturing guide designed by the British start-up Sutrue, who prototyped almost every step of their development using a Formlabs printer.
Fenske: What is happening in the materials space for 3D printing that will impact healthcare?
Shipley: Materials are, by far, the trickiest part of 3D printing in medicine, because anything that comes in contact with skin or is implanted in the body has to be 100% safe, and when dealing with plastics, that’s not always easy. Once there is a low-cost 3D printing process that is completely safe for implantation, we’ll see a revolution in customized replacement joints and stents.
Fenske: Do you experience any of the regulatory issues that medical device manufacturers would face?
Shipley: We are very conscious about not making claims about our technology that would lead someone to think that it’s an FDA-approved medical device, and we educate our customers to ensure that they’re not mistakenly implanting or inserting printed models in patients.
Fenske: How will real-time printing of medical technologies impact healthcare?
Shipley: We’re already seeing it revolutionize the speed of treatment in some specific applications, such as printing surgical guides and some specialized cases where surgeons are producing bone grafts and plates for healing broken bones. As the technology advances and more materials become available for implantation, we’re going to see a revolution in personalized medicine that will speed recovery times and improve the quality of life for patients.
Fenske: What concerns do you hear regarding 3D printing from the healthcare space?
Shipley: At the moment most of the concern seems to be about accuracy and repeatability. Obviously, in order to be a certified medical device, a machine has to meet a set of rigorous standards. Also, a lot of the media hype around 3D printing has created some unrealistic expectations of what is possible with 3D printing in the short-term.
Fenske: What concerns do you hear regarding 3D printing from the medical device development space?
Shipley: We’ve gotten nothing but overwhelmingly positive feedback from medical device developers. The Form 1, Form 1+, and now the Form 2 have truly democratized product development by allowing tinkerers and designers to afford the type of prototyping technology they could previously only dream of having on their desktop. Advances in 3D printing technology are going to disrupt the medical device space.
Fenske: Is 3D printing replacing more traditional prototyping processes or enhancing them?
Shipley: 3D printing has been around for a long time, it just hasn’t been affordable to most companies. It certainly isn’t replacing traditional prototyping processes, unless you’re thinking of hand-modeling out of clay or cardboard, but it is definitely enhancing it as the cost of the equipment comes down and more and more engineers get to see their ideas come to life.
Fenske: What’s the next step for your company?
Shipley: We’re at an interesting point in our development, where we’re starting to really become known to a larger audience and we can start building on the reputation for reliability and customer service we’ve earned among some of our earlier backers and customers. Half-jokingly our sales team says that their goal is “world domination,” but it’s not as sinister as it sounds. We really do want to see our printer on every desk in every company around the world.
Fenske: What’s ahead for 3D printing in healthcare?
Shipley: We’re going to see a lot of amazing new innovations in personalized medicine over the next few years, and as the technology advances, the cost of these interventions will continue to go down. When you can provide patients with a customized solution to their unique condition, you can actually lower healthcare costs in the aggregate since a lot of the costs associated with recovery are due to “one-size-fits-all” medicine.
Fenske: As we wrap up, do you have any final comments you’d like to share?
Shipley: Coming from a background in medical liability, one thing that really excites me is the idea that as doctors can produce patient-specific surgical models to practice on, the incidence of preventable medical errors will go down. It’s one thing to have an advanced MRI or CT scanning suite, but viewing the images in 2D slices on a computer screen is nothing compared to printing a model and actually drilling or incising into it.