The use of 3D printing in the creation of medical equipment is skyrocketing, according to a recent report by the Transparency Market Research Company.
Manufacturers of medical equipment, like surgical instruments and biomaterials, had $354.5 million worth of 3D printers in their inventory in 2012, and that number is expected to reach $965 million by 2019, the report states.
"In the field of healthcare, this technology is still in its primitive stage and holds immense potential for a wide array of medical applications," said Shashi Kumar, Transparency Market Research managing director.
Medical equipment manufacturers can no longer afford to ignore 3D printing technology.
"Ever increasing cost pressures on medical device manufacturers and their intense need to introduce innovative products has forced them to adopt 3D printing as a means to reduce the manufacturing life cycle and almost completely eliminate the traditional prototyping," the report states.
Creating implements to improve wound care is just one way manufacturers are using instruments made with 3D printing, Kumar said.
"3D printing has allowed production of lattice structures which help to accelerate rapid healing of wounds and implants in the body," Kumar said. "A larger surface area promotes better healing … due to the textured surface. Customized implants are now being made based on (computer-aided design) data from the patient. This results in a reduction in hospital stay duration and entails few post procedural side effects."
Prior to the advent of 3D printing, engineers had to cut a prototype out of a piece of steal or clay. That process, still being used today, is known as "subtractive manufacturing" because material is removed from a chunk of raw material to create the finished product.
However, more frequently, surgical instruments are being created with 3D printing by fusing metal dust together with things like lasers or electron beams.
"The reduction in time and costs are so great that when we first started telling people, we had to kind of dumb it down because people wouldn't believe it," explains Joe Hiemenz, a spokesman for Stratasys, one of the largest manufacturers of 3D printers. "We would tell them it could save them 85 percent (of their costs) and they wouldn't believe it because it was so astronomical. We had to say, 'Okay, it will save you 70 percent or 75 percent.'"
The use of 3D printing to create medical equipment is most common in North America, but is expected to grow the most in Europe over the next six years, according to the report.
"This growth has been attributed to an increase in government funding… coupled with various small and big mergers and acquisitions of companies for technological advancements," the report states.
The study goes a long way towards dispelling the common notion held by much of the world that 3D printing is really only used to create nifty little trinkets.
"(The use of 3D printing in serious manufacturing) was there long before the trinkets, but it didn't get much press because it wasn't sexy," Hiemenz says. "It's been used by virtually every Fortune 500 company for years. For instance, virtually every automotive company in the world has at least one of our printers, if not one of our competitor's as well."
3D printing is generally used in the manufacturing process when relatively few units are needed, Hiemenz adds.
"You're not going to use it to make a million cell phones, but say you're Boeing and you need 100 airplane parts, that's when 3D printing is used," he says.