3-D printing: Healthcare's new edge

'We can either order a part or take a few minutes and design it.'
By Jeff Byers
10:38 AM
3D printer

3D printing is set to become a disruptive technology across many sectors, including healthcare – and a money saver too. Employing 3D printing, one medical wearable startup tallied savings of more than $250,000 in one year.

“A lot of people think [3D printing] is going to be the next industrial revolution," Stuff You Should Know co-host Charles Bryant said in a recent podcast.
“If [3D printing] does take off, and it’s becoming increasingly possible that it [will] as costs come down for materials and the actual printers themselves, …more and more barriers [will come] down and if it becomes widespread,… so long manufacturing and transportation sectors as we know them."

Currently, the price tag associated with 3D printers varies but market researcher Gartner expects worldwide shipments of 3D printers priced less than $100,000 will grow from 56,507 units in 2013 to 98,065 units in 2014.

[See also: Triple aim.]

"The 3D printer market has reached its inflection point," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner, in a press release. "While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results."
The healthcare sector is gearing up to put stock into the burgeoning technology. For example, the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, along with three other research universities in Europe and Australia, have jointly launched a master’s program in bioprinting, the technique of using 3D printers to grow human tissue.

Beyond bioprinting, 3D printing could assist to revolutionize administrative costs for healthcare organizations. In September 2013, Michigan Technology University researchers published their findings in Mechatronics that open source 3D printing technology could save a consumer a range from $300 to $2,000 a year by printing 20 products annually.

Dulcie Madden, CEO and co-founder of Rest Devices, a medical wearable start-up, stated that the Boston-based company saved “well over” $250,000 in a year after purchasing a 3D printer in 2011 for about $2,000.

Beginning as a medical device development company, Rest Devices bought the printer  to assist rapid prototyping for research and development. The company began to develop sensors for an adult shirt that would log an individual’s respiration, temperature and body position and the data to diagnose sleep apnea. However, the company quickly found new use for their technology for infant respiration monitors and shifted prototyping focus for that use. Using 3D printers for more than hundreds of sensor prototypes, Rest Devices was able to save on production costs.

“Instead of having to spend on injection molding for plastic, which can cost thousand of dollars, we can spit out 3D prints in an hour for pennies or dollars,” says Madden.
Similarly, Jennifer Mann, lab manager at the Derisi Lab at University of California, San Francisco, has noted that 3D printing allows users from graduate students to post-doctorate students to quickly customize and build designs for a variety of lab equipment.

The lab, which studies infectious diseases such as malaria, employs two printers (they cost about $15,000 each) in which users can use or customize open source designs for equipment as small as a pipette holder or a minifuge rotor to a cutaway model of a malaria parasite showing a new drug target site in a molecular structure.

Mann states that the lab saves approximately $6,000 a year by using the 3D printers to make items that are either customized or more expensive in catalogs.

“We can either order a part or take a few minutes and design it,” says Mann. “For instance, instead of paying $50 for a gel comb, we can make our own for about $1 worth of materials.”

Customization is attractive because not all workspaces are created equal. Thus, one pipette holder to smooth workloads for one lab worker’s work space could need to be changed for another’s.

[See also: Boston Children's Innovation Showcase.]

“In the past, we were limited to either purchasing what vendors offered (with one- to two-day delivery time) or custom machining (one- to four-week delivery time),” says Mann. “Now, if already designed, a part could be ready in one hour to overnight." Having a 3D printer allows the company to save money and time in the long run, he says.

And with the promise of open source customization comes the promise of rapid development and quick exchange of ideas.

“I think 3D printing is going to change the way all product development is done in the future where …. smaller companies can get to market faster is a huge step…mean[ing] there will be more innovation coming into the healthcare space,” says Madden.

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