Blog Post

3-D printing: What you need to know before your organization invests

By Andrew Rebhan

October 13, 2017

    3-D printing has the potential to greatly disrupt traditional manufacturing—opening up new possibilities to print almost anything, from small widgets to even houses—and could bring major changes to the health care industry, too.

    3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) involves putting down successive layers of raw materials to build three-dimensional objects. Such materials can include polymers (e.g., plastics, resins), various powdered metals and alloys, ceramics, wax, and even organic materials (e.g., stem cells).

    The 3-D printing process

    The first step in the 3-D-printing process is to create a digital model, which is often done with computer-aided design (CAD) software. Within the software workflow, users can adjust the printing process to match their needs regarding segmentation, functionality, and structural complexity. The design is then imported into a slicer program to determine build layers before it is converted into a file format that can be read by the printer. Post-processing steps may include coloring, sanding, sterilization, and polishing. A visual workflow of a typical printing process is shown below.

    chartCurrent and future applications

    3-D printing started to impact health care in the early 2000s, with early applications centered on dental devices, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids. Since then, medical 3-D printing applications have expanded considerably. Some common and emerging applications include:

    • Models for preoperative planning: Health care providers can 3-D print patient-specific models of organs, nerves, tumors, and other tissues from CT or MRI scans. These models can be used for patient education, to help diagnose an illness, or to plan for surgery.
    • Implants: Health care providers are starting to use 3-D-printed hip and knee joints, spinal disks, plates for craniofacial reconstruction, and other bone replacements.
    • Bioprinting: Researchers are testing out new ways to use 3-D printers and stem cells to print blood vessels, muscles, cartilage, and functional organs. 3-D-printed tissues and organs may be used for testing pharmaceuticals or cosmetics, and modeling the effects of different diseases.
    • Pharmaceuticals: 3-D printing could also transform drug manufacturing and delivery, allowing for tailored doses and consolidation of multiple drugs into a single pill. Researchers are currently testing how drugs can be tailored to a patient's age, sex, weight, or medical requirements, providing a mechanism for the delivery of precision medicine. In 2015, FDA approved the first 3-D-printed prescription drug for epilepsy.

    Adoption trends

    Given the popularity of 3-D printing, universal protocols and implementation best practices continue to evolve. Adoption is currently hindered by a lack of reimbursement for 3-D-printed medical devices and models. Nonetheless, many groups are running clinical trials to provide sufficient evidence that 3-D printing can improve patient outcomes. Future adoption will be supported by established coding frameworks, decreasing hardware costs, greater portability, expiration of technology patents, and a growth of open-source software platforms.

    Operational and IT considerations

    Any organization just starting to look into buying and implementing a 3-D printer will have several factors to consider before proceeding. In a publication titled "A Roadmap from Idea to Implementation – 3-D Printing for Pre-Surgical Applications" by the company 3DHEALS, authors Dr. Jenny Chen and Michelle Gariel outline a number of implementation considerations that are split across three categories:


    It is likely that a team of technicians from lab, engineering, and imaging departments will handle the design, use, and maintenance of 3-D printers. Health care organizations should set up a structured deployment plan to ensure proper cross-departmental integration and avoid underutilization.

    Some certified service vendors run printing facilities or offer leased equipment to help customers throughout the entire 3-D printing cycle. Outsourcing minimizes upfront investment in hardware, software, materials, and post-processing stations. However, outsourcing typically requires longer lead times, and users lose some of their autonomy to rapidly adjust or alter designs.

    Get our 3-D printing cheat sheet

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    CIOs who support and work collaboratively with non-IT leaders on 3-D printing initiatives can establish the IT department as an innovative leader. The technology can help to streamline the supply chain, improve patient outcomes, and offer new avenues for cross-departmental collaboration and creativity.

    Read our Daily Briefing article to learn more about how hospitals are using 3-D printing in patient care.

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