Being around since the ’80s, 3D printing has always been highlighted as an alternative to traditional manufacturing methods. Its application in the health care industry is still in infancy since many 3D-printed medical solutions are still in experimental stages.
However, its impact is expanding in areas like tissue engineering, diagnostic platforms, biomedical devices, anatomical models, dentistry, and many more. With the recent COVID-19 disrupting the critical medical equipment supply chain, wider use of 3D printing in health care seems unavoidable.
Many health care systems and hospitals are now turning to this additive manufacturing approach. While most hospitals are getting the required parts from 3D printing manufacturers, some do the printing themselves. The recently emerged concept, point-of-care 3D printing is where hospitals 3D print their own medical devices.
VHA to 3D Print Their Own Medical Devices
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has recently extended its collaboration with 3D Systems to design and 3D print medical devices. It is an expansion of their earlier partnership to develop 3D printed masks and nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19.
This largest integrated health care system in the United States will be setting up 3D printing facilities within its hospitals. 3D Systems will then assist its partner to deal with regulatory paperwork besides developing a quality management system.
The 3D printer manufacturer will also provide training to VHA for them to be compliant as a medical device manufacturer. With the on-site production of medical devices, VHA aims to improve personalized patient care by streamlining its supply chain.
The largest hospital system in Europe sets up a temporary medical 3D printing site
The University Hospital Trust (AP-HP) in Paris has launched a large-scale 3D printing operation called the “3D Covid” project. It has installed 60 industrial-grade 3D printers (delivered by France-based Stratasys reseller CADvision) at a 150-square-meter facility within AP-HP’s Cochin Hospital.
These 3D printers will produce simple parts for medical devices and personal protective equipment (PPE) on-site and on-demand. Parts fabricated will include face shields and masks, electrical syringe pumps, intubation equipment, respiratory valves, and hands-free door handles. Meanwhile, AP-HP has launched a 3D printing platform (3dcovid.org) to track requests for 3D printed parts from hospital staff in Paris and its surrounding areas.
Why 3D Printing?
This additive manufacturing technology gets its name from the way it prints an object. It creates 3D solid objects from a digital file by adding multiple layers of material together.
One of the major advantages of 3D printing compared to other production methods such as injection moulding is its flexibility. This feature allows for faster prototyping, more tailored designs, and a wider choice of materials used. By cutting down the delivery time and scaling up production, 3D printing can save the day by tackling medical equipment shortage.
For 3D printing at the point of care, it is even more time and cost-effective. With printing facilities right inside the hospitals, there will be no issues of late deliveries from third party manufacturers.
A Short-Term Stopgap or A Long-Term Transformation?
Nevertheless, adopting 3D printing in hospital environments is not without challenges. Considering how fast additive manufacturing is advancing, hospitals need to address the issues related to in-house 3D printing expertise. Besides the availability and cost of materials, the material performance is another barrier.
Budgetary limitations for setting up a reliable 3D printing facility matter as well. Then we have quality concerns about the printed parts and the limitations of 3D printers to print certain complicated parts. To move beyond prototyping to part production is not easy.
For now, most 3D printers only print relatively simple pieces with the intention to address emergency shortages in hospitals. To 3D print a resuscitator might be interesting, but it is likely to happen after this COVID-19 battle. Regulatory concerns such as getting authority approval and patent liability are among the major hurdles too. Regulatory scrutiny increases with the potential risks of medical devices.
By overcoming these obstacles, 3D printing will probably go beyond a short-term stopgap in the future. Although it takes time, more hospitals are expected to take on 3D printing in their supply chains. It won’t be a complete no-brainer, but you can see it as a potential long-term investment.
More information about:
- Is COVID-19 A Bonanza for All Medical Device Industry Players?
- Flexible Bioelectronics- A Potential Game Changer in Healthcare