It used to be that 3D printing was a hobby for those in the maker’s space, creating intricate and detailed, customized objects for personal pursuits. Fast forward to today and the technology has proven its might time and again in assorted industries. Perhaps most notable, 3D printing is performing a potentially life-saving role in the healthcare industry where it is being used to print everything from anatomical models for teaching applications to components used in critical healthcare equipment. Read on for just a few of the examples of the role 3D printing is playing in the healthcare industry.

Printing blood vessels

Materials science engineers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) are attempting to develop 3D-printed implantable blood vessels that can monitor the health of implantable vessels from within the body.

Source: UW-MadisonSource: UW-MadisonTo create the artificial self-monitoring vessels, the engineers mixed sodium-potassium niobite piezoceramic nanoparticles with a polyvinylidene fluoride polymer. When an electric field was applied to the polyvinylidene fluoride polymer, the ferroelectric material altered its polarity. The team then 3D printed the tubular artery, which was extruded via an electric field located near the nozzle to polarize the ceramic particles, imbuing the vessel with piezoelectric characteristics.

“This artificial vessel can produce electric pulses based on pressure fluctuation which will be able to tell precisely the blood pressure in the vessel without using any additional power source,” said UW–Madison professor Xudong Wang. “And because of the 3D geometry, the electric pulse profile will be able to tell if there is an irregular motion due to blockage inside in the very early stages.”

An estimated 40% to 50% of all grafts reportedly fail. As such, the UW team believes that their 3D-printed self-monitoring artificial vessels could potentially improve the survival rates of the implanted vessels.

Printing masks

As the COVID-19 pandemic upset the global supply chain, depleting stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, 3D printing has proven its value, manufacturing necessary PPE and equipment to fight COVID-19. One such example of this was recently demonstrated by Infinite Electronics using its 3D-printing capabilities to produce reusable medical face shields for healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus.

Printing medical equipment

The 3D-printed splitter. Source: Johns Hopkins UniversityThe 3D-printed splitter. Source: Johns Hopkins University

Like the supply chain for masks, critical life-saving equipment such as ventilators have also been in short supply. As such, a team of engineers from Johns Hopkins University is developing and prototyping a 3D-printed splitter that will make it possible for a single ventilator to simultaneously treat multiple patients. To do this, the team has 3D printed a splitter that directs air flow to multiple patients simultaneously from one ventilator.

Although ventilator splitters have been proposed as a solution to the ventilator shortage before, medical professionals have expressed concern that the devices spread germs and do not offer the appropriate amount of oxygen to intubated patients requiring different flow levels.

However, the Johns Hopkins' team designed a prototype that addresses both concerns with the addition of a filter for preventing cross contamination and an air flow controller and flow meter system that enables healthcare professionals to monitor and adjust individual flow rates to patients.

Ventilators are particularly critical for treating those who have developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is the primary cause of death for COVID-19 patients wherein fluid builds in the patient’s lungs, limiting oxygen in the bloodstream and thereby depriving vital organs of oxygen.

Printing sensors

Source: University of WaterlooSource: University of WaterlooEngineers from Canada's University of Waterloo have created a durable sensor for wearable devices using nanotechnology and 3D printing.

The team created wearables for measuring vital signs, athletic performance and everything in between using sensors composed of silicone rubber and infused with thin layers of graphene. This combination resulted in a material that can be easily incorporated into wearables such as wristbands and sneakers.

Printing muscle

A handheld 3D bioprinter that prints scaffolds for musculoskeletal surgery has been developed by researchers from the University of Connecticut. The bioprinter is capable of printing scaffolds directly onto defect sites within weakened skeletal muscles, thereby eliminating the need for suturing.

The bioprinter’s gelatin-based hydrogel scaffolds bind to the tissue surrounding an injury and mimics that tissue’s properties.

Printing implants

Researchers at Rice University have developed a technique for 3D-printing solid plastic implants that include living cells that can be surgically inserted to heal bone, cartilage or muscle.

Using a fiber engraving technique, the team incorporated a groove onto the surface of a thermoplastic printed fiber via 3D printer where a low viscosity bio-ink was deposited.

According to researchers, the 800 micron wide grooved threads and deposited cellular materials formed 3D shapes, supporting cell layers that produced different kinds of tissue.

Printing skin

Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York have devised a 3D-printing method to print living skin grafts that behave like actual skin.

The RPI team created the new skin by adding a combination of human endothelial cells, pericyte cells, animal collagen and other structural cells to skin graft printing material. Once combined, the endothelial cells serve as a liner inside the blood vessels and the pericyte cells wrap around them, forming a structure resembling a vessel. Following their introduction, the cells started communicating when grafted onto a lab mouse.

The RPI team determined that the skin graft vessels communicated with the mouse's vessels and transferred blood and nutrients from the mouse’s body to the graft, thereby keeping the graft alive.

Printing models

Typically, models of organs to prepare surgeons for upcoming surgeries are composed of hard plastic material, not at all resembling the look and feel of an actual organ. As such, a team led by the University of Minnesota developed life-like 3D-printed organs to help surgeons prep for surgery.

Using silicon-based inks and soft 3D-printed sensors, the team 3D printed organ models in the lab that mimic the actual look and feel of real organs and duplicated their mechanical properties. Enabling surgeons to conduct practice surgeries ahead of actual surgeries using such models reportedly improved surgical outcomes and reduced the potential for medical errors.

Printing prosthetics

Perhaps the most obvious application for 3D printing in the healthcare industry includes the making of prosthetics. Designing and manufacturing limbs and other missing body parts requires significant resources, both financially and materially. However, as researchers, startups and all manner of maker is discovering, prosthetics can be easily made using 3D printing.

With the ability to quickly and easily custom manufacture limbs and other body parts according to the patient’s physical specs, the field of 3D prosthetics is expected to take off. In addition to customizing the device to fit the wearer’s body, designs can also incorporate details surrounding how the wearer uses the new limb in terms of work and other details about the wearer’s life, thereby ensuring the best fit and design.

This is just a sampling of the impact 3D printing has had on the healthcare industry. Check back with Engineering360 for more on this and other healthcare-related topics.

To contact the author of this article, email