It seems today’s world is defined more by ‘innovation as revolution’ than the ‘same and steady.’ In the past couple of years, we have seen the advent of many world-changing technologies: Big Data, AI, the Metaverse, and also 3D printing. The promise of 3D printing is manifold. In the commercial world, it will allow for quick and cheap prototyping. Where a new model might previously have taken thousands of dollars and days to make, it can now be made for a couple of hundred dollars overnight. This alone promises to completely change the world of research and development (R&D) across all fields of engineering, speeding up product development as it allows for quicker iteration, as well as the testing of higher-risk ideas. One of the industries that shows the greatest potential to be changed by 3D printing is healthcare.
For healthcare, 3D printing would benefit from all these things. In a field that is notoriously slow to adapt to change, rapid prototyping would allow the industry to test new prototypes more quickly. Perhaps the most unique use case for 3D printing is bespoke model and tool creation. One of the weaknesses of our current healthcare system is that we are forced into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Mostly, surgeons must use tools of the same shape and size on patients with very different anatomy. Some patients may have smaller, larger, or even obstructed anatomy that standard surgical tools may not adjust well to. On top of that, encountering non-standard anatomy in the middle of surgery is a high-risk and -stress situation for both surgeon and patient. The greatest promise of 3D printing here is two-fold. Firstly, it allows the surgeon to pre-plan for unusual anatomy by 3D printing an accurate anatomical map of the patient that they can strategize their operation around more effectively. Secondly, 3D printing can also create bespoke tools that were shaped to fit the patient’s specific anatomy. With all this currently possible, why isn’t healthcare jumping on this technology?
Earlier this year, the FDA and watchdog ECRI have cautioned that 3D printing may be ‘one of the top technology health hazards of 2021 due to a lack of regulation and expertise.’ 3D printing is a relatively new technology, and healthcare is notoriously slow to adopt anything due to health concerns. In a normal commercial or personal setting, the quality of the prototype is not absolutely critical. However, in healthcare, the quality of a device is absolutely paramount as lives are at stake. Especially in such a novel field where there are very few experts in this extremely new technology, it is very hard to say when a 3D printed tool is or isn’t safe to use. Furthermore, there is currently a lack of regulation covering the technology. Who is legally responsible if something goes wrong? Is it the hospital that printed and used the tool, or the company that provided the tool for printing?
All these questions still need to be answered, but in the meantime, it means that 3D printing in the healthcare sphere will have to languish even as it grows in other fields. GlobalData predicts that the 3D printing field as a whole is going to see absolutely explosive growth at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16% in the coming years, resulting in a 2025 total market cap of $32bn. This will rise to well over $60bn by 2030. All is not lost for the healthcare 3D printing sector, however. As the technology matures and develops in other fields while healthcare works out its regulations, we will see even stronger growth for 3D printing when its time finally comes in healthcare.