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How 3D-printing advances medical industry

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Nowadays, 3D printing solutions are of great interest for companies of any profile. According to experts, by 2025, the global market for additive technologies will be worth $32 billion, and by 2030, it will be $60 billion. 3D printing is actively used for the creation of art modes, in the automotive industry, construction, film industry, and even in the field of fashion. Printing technologies are especially relevant in healthcare — not only as visual aids for future physicians but also for the treatment of various diseases. Many of the latest advances in medical science have been made thanks to 3D printing, and in the foreseeable future, artificial organs and even medicines can be created by means of these technologies. Let's take a look at how 3D modeling and 3D printing help companies achieve great results with relatively small investments.

Individual approach: printing medical prostheses

Now, let’s take some examples from the medical field where high dimensional accuracy of products plays a key role. The founder of Cosm, Derek Sham, set out to launch the production of individual intravaginal devices (the so-called "pessaries") for women suffering from pelvic floor dysfunction — the inability of the ligaments and muscles to hold the pelvic organs in a normal position. Derek's grandmother suffered from this severe disorder, and the only effective treatment was that with a pessary. This type of treatment requires no surgery, which is important for the elderly.

The main problem with the use of a pessary is the complexity of choice, due to which patients often have to try various sizes and models as well as undergo numerous examinations after being engaged in physical activities. Sham decided to draw on his grandmother’s experience and founded a company producing custom-made pessaries. These devices are designed based on the unique anatomy and needs of the patient.

To implement the project, Cosm decided to make use of 3D printing technologies. Initially, the task was to print silicone devices right away, but it turned out that this was impossible with the materials available at that time. Besides, the company could not employ the standard injection molding process used in mass production, since the creation of a pessary is a very complex process, where devices are selected individually for each patient.

Having considered offers from leading 3D printing companies, Cosm turned to Formlabs. Producing molds on the Form 3 3D printer simplified the task and reduced the cost to an acceptable level, allowing for the adjustment of parameters according to the individual anatomy of patients and printing of separate forms for each product.

The process is carried out in the following way: medical silicone is injected into 3D printed forms, after which it is cured. To develop such a pessary, it is not necessary to carry out manual measurements, since it is possible to use a new ultrasound imaging technology with the conversion of scans into a 3D model using self-learning algorithms. The major advantages of this method is the high resolution of 3D printing, high accuracy, and excellent surface quality.

According to Cosm lead design engineer Robert Lancefield, Autodesk's Fusion 360 software played an integral role in the workflow. Fusion 360 saved the team a few steps — from custom sizing to parametric modeling of devices and then exporting the molds to the Preform slicer, allowing the team to automate several stages of the design process.

In general, the presence of one’s own additive production ensures flexibility in design and prototyping, allowing you to quickly make changes to the design of master models or the method of making molds, and then immediately proceed to manufacturing, consistently improving the design. Without 3D printing, the cost of each prototype would be much higher, and it would take about a week or more to manufacture it. It is worth noting that Formlabs Form 3 3D printers are quite expensive. If you're looking for a more budget-friendly yet large-format option, you might consider a new product by Uniz, the Slash 2 Plus 3D printer.

Perfect device for a healthy back

Another example of 3D printing in medical manufacturing is the Vertiball muscle pain treatment device, which has received a plethora of positive reviews on Amazon, including those from NFL players Cedarian Lamb and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

It all started when the founder of the Vertiball company, Curtis Kennedy, decided to change the approach to the treatment of muscle and back pain. Curtis tried a lot of home remedies for himself, including the massage of inflamed areas with a tennis ball, which was definitely not easy. Eventually, he came up with a way to attach the ball to a vertical surface, allowing patients to focus on the very areas of the back that need massage. A key innovation of Vertiball is the patented mobile attachment system — a strong suction cup to be attached to smooth surfaces. The front of the device, containing a freely rotating massage ball, is fixed to a base with the suction cup. This product is rather small, which makes it convenient to carry around.

Despite its apparent simplicity, designing and producing the Vertiball proved to be quite challenging. Because the device is intended for everyday use, the latch mechanism can bend hundreds, thousands of times. In addition, the product contains plastic that mates with metal fittings: the front and rear components should slide, and the ball should rotate freely with low friction. For these reasons, the team chose polyamide-6 — a tough, low-friction material.

The most difficult stage during the development was associated with the dimensional accuracy of molded parts. For this purpose, the company decided to use the Formlabs Form 3 3D printer, which has the necessary resolution to make functional prototypes before mass production of devices by injection molding. The Autodesk Fusion 360 software was utilized for the design, which allowed visualizing the behavior of the product in real operating conditions. In order to optimize the structure in the process of 3D modeling, stress analysis was carried out under certain loads. This method resulted in a robust and durable device, with a successful Kickstarter campaign whose funding was eventually 8 times higher than the minimum amount required.

Bottom line

In 2022, it's safe to say that 3D printing turns out to be of immense help to the medical industry. Thanks to digital technologies, even the most difficult projects that require an integrated and individual approach are efficiently implemented. The perfect symbiosis of 3D modeling and 3D printing greatly simplifies the activities of companies, making all processes more understandable and cost-effective.

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