3D Printing in Health Care: All Hands on Deck

The other day, I came across an episode of The Big Bang Theory where characters were talking about using a 3D printer to make personalized dolls. Recently, Dayton Mall  in Ohio installed a first-of-its kind 3D scanning booth by Doppelganger Labs and Artec Group for customers to print their own 3D figurines. It pinpoints thinking of a typical consumer for what a 3D printer can do.

In reality, 3D printing (or in more technical terms, additive manufacturing) is headed beyond the personalized dolls, for sure. It has emerged from niche market to create an interest among mainstream industries and become more than $2.5 billion and growing business. It’s application in pretty much every sector including consumer products, automotive, aerospace, defense, medical and architecture, has created a rapid interest in this industry, from start-ups to printing giants.

Capabilities of 3D printing are astonishing to me. And, I think the biggest beneficiaries of 3D printing technology innovations are going to be medical professionals and associated researchers in healthcare industry and hence, ultimately the patients in need. Still in infancy, the technology comes with it’s own challenges for real life applications. When we have better tools, everyone starts to think and play the game differently. Hence, to utilize this emerging technology efficiently open innovation can help tremendously by bringing together parties with vested interest, especially given the complexity of technology as well as our healthcare system.

How things are shaping up today?Utilization of the technology in healthcare sector is already underway. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, recently emphasized that 3D Printing will spur a new wave of growth and innovation in healthcare. Obvious well established applications of the technology are generation of medical prototypes for education purposes, implants, medical devices and surgical tools. 3D printed hearing aids by EnvisionTec are most prominent example where they need to be customized per user. Although right now, technology may not be necessarily cost effective but in many cases can certainly save a life.

There are many other upcoming and intriguing applications of the 3D printing, ‘live printing’ is one such. Scientists are printing out bone-like materials, embryonic stem cells, and blood vessels. Complete organ printing has a potential to totally transform or even replace traditional solid scaffold-based tissue engineering. I remember reading couple of years back about researchers at Cornell University used 3D printing technology to ‘grow’ a human ear. This gives an opportunity to print out a bionic object that will not only do the regular function but will enhance its capability. In fact, there have been already reports on bionic ear where two dimensional electronics is integrated with 3D printed cell seeded matrix. In a way, this is redefining stem cells research and taking it to the next level.

3D printed tissues/organs also provide a tremendous alternative to animal or human testing models for drug-discovery and diagnostics and also reduce the noise of the critics that comes otherwise. Organovo® has already started providing 3D bioprinted liver tissue models for the evaluation of drug exposure for both acute and chronic toxicity and metabolism studies.

3D printing initiatives in food and nutrition areas are promising several potential health benefits and innovation opportunities.

Easier said than done
Of course, being as critical as subject of human health is today, the application of 3D printing technology comes with various challenges—both technical and bureaucratic.

Bio-compatibility of the material has to be the top most concern of the 3D printed objects intended for human body. It is much easier to print an object with plastic or metal than with living cell. Right printing materials and right conditions are the key, here. Biologically sophisticated software that provides the ‘life’ to the tissue or organ still needs to be perfected.

Like for any new technology, the cost effectiveness, accuracy and large scale manufacturing has a long way to go before it matches traditional high volume manufacturing. With increasing interest by research world, it is bound to change. According to Jennifer Taylor, pharmaceutical industry analyst at Visiongain, for example, customized orthopedic implants perform better and reduce surgery times which ultimately will reduce costs.

Regulatory bodies face another grand challenge for controlling the technology applications in healthcare industry. Healthcare, where safety is of paramount concern, comprehensive checks will be required, especially for long term durability of the products.

Legislators are going to have their hands full with the IP rights again. Majority of the patents in 3D printing are owned by fewer companies. And, in today’s mentality of start-up world, it will get difficult to make rapid progress if one spends time and money to figure out a way to get around the IP. One of the obvious questions is going to be who owns what—OEM of the printer, person printing the object or the technology applicator are only few rightful claimers.

Then there is the issue of liability by healthcare insurance providers. That may also come as an obstacle in actually practicing the 3D printed objects for the treatment. It is unclear to me, to date, how this will affect the marketing of such products and eventually the cost effectiveness.


Developing the connected ecosystem will lead to cheaper-faster-better innovation.Today, 3D printing has paved a way for many entrepreneurial avenues. Crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter have provided a platform for lot of start-up firms. But many of them lack the all-round knowledge that is needed to go beyond just the minimum viable product, commercialize and thrive in long term with minimum obstacles. To succeed in commercializing any product and delivering the wholistic consumer experience, we need different types of experts and services to come together.

Therefore, it is imperative that implementation of 3D printing in healthcare industry evolves into an interdependent ‘healthcare eco-system’ consisting of OEMs, pharmaceutical/biotech companies, academic researchers, software experts, patients/consumers, doctors, government/regulators, insurers, and others. An open innovation approach is needed, where identifying all the right entities will provide an efficient and effective collaboration. 3D printing OEM players with innovative mindset and culture should lead the process of such effort where they will find value in identifying several business opportunities that they did not think of before. Leading pharmaceutical/biotech companies should also find an interest instigating such an effort due to cost effective and potentially disruptive innovation opportunities. It may very well change the existing business model of selling drugs to selling chemical inks for personalized medications. Such big players can exploit their in-house expertise, existing global relationships and better resources which can be complemented by the inputs from subject matter experts from different disciplines and consumers. Legislators can make sure of regulations awareness which will result in safe consumer friendly products.

I truly believe that 3D printing technology has a great potential to be the Napster of healthcare field, revolutionizing the way we think of patient treatments—if played it right. May be one day we will get closer to the fantasy:

4iNNO uses a unique “what’s possible, what’s needed and what’s required” approach to drive the open innovation and establish networks in variety of application areas. Feel free to connect with us to discuss our various offerings.

Sujit Mahajan, PhD