Additive Manufacturing Enhances Medical Technology

Text: Thomas Masuch; Fotos: Thomas Klerx / FHC, Inc

The innovations made possible by additive manufacturing have also contributed to many new medical applications and opportunities, ranging from devices with a proven track record, such as the 3D-printed titanium hip replacement, to medical instruments, surgical models, prostheses, and countless other applications. 3D printing has also opened up exciting possibilities in plastics thanks to new developments in materials.

Following on from the successful use of 3D-printed dental prostheses over many years, plastics have recently assumed a significantly larger role in the field of additive medical technology. Material developments and new production methods have also provided some of the impetus in this area. Two years ago, Arburg launched its freeformer system, which offers a combination of mass production and customization.

»Resorbable polylactide (PLA, Resomer) is an innovative material that dissolves harmlessly in the body after a certain amount of time.«


Arburg sees individually tailored implants and orthoses as well as pre-surgical models as a promising field of application for additive manufacturing in medical technology. »Resorbable polylactide (PLA, Resomer) is an innovative material that dissolves harmlessly in the body after a certain amount of time,« says Eberhard Lutz, Director Freeformer Sales at Arburg. The company has also used the freeformer to produce a model of a skull using additive manufacturing.

The valuable expertise contributed to a case in the USA by EOS highlights the importance of material expertise in medical 3D printing. In this case, a fourteen-year-old girl with the congenital respiratory disease tracheobronchomalacia (TBM) was fitted with an innovative 3D-printed tracheal splint. EOS discovered that polycaprolactone (PCL) is the perfect material for this type of splint due to its very long resorption time. The implant is expected to remain in place for at least two years before it starts to dissolve. In addition, PCL is a very supple material.

Orthoses and prostheses with great potential

The field of orthoses and prostheses is another important area of application for additive manufacturing in medical technology. In this growing billion-dollar market, the advantages provided by 3D printing include customized fit and significantly faster manufacturing.

Paralympian Denise Schindler described these benefits in concrete terms in her keynote address at the 2016 formnext conference powered by tct. She described the elaborate manufacturing process for her prosthesis, which she has worn while winning numerous cycling medals and titles. But 3D printing also offers very interesting opportunities in everyday life: Among the products launched by the Mecuris company, which was founded in 2016, is »FirStep« – a prosthetic foot for children – for which the company won first prize in the Purmundus Challenge design award at formnext 2016.

Stratasys, one of the major players in the industry, recently announced that it is collaborating with Peacocks Medical Group to produce custom orthotic insoles in large quantities using additive production methods. The economic importance of this market segment can be seen from the figures alone: The market research institute IndustryArc predicts that the global market for orthotic insoles will have grown to 3.5 billion dollars by 2020.

»material expertise is critical to market success«

The importance of medical technology in additive manufacturing is also evident at the international formnext exhibition, which showcases the next generation of intelligent product development and manufacturing in Frankfurt each year. »Our exhibitors include the global elite in additive manufacturing – and the medical field plays an important role for most of these companies,« says Sascha F. Wenzler, Head of Division for formnext at event organizer Mesago Messe Frankfurt GmbH. Alongside new production capabilities and 3D printers, the influence of materials on further innovations continues to grow, and numerous manufacturers of metal and synthetic powders as well as plastic filaments (material rolls) will be presenting at the next formnext, which takes place in Frankfurt from 14–17 November 2017. »Especially in medicine, where components are in contact with body tissues either temporarily or permanently, material expertise is critical to market success. We want to present these innovations,« says Wenzler.

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