Medical Innovation

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is transforming the medical world, with multi-jet fusion technology being heralded as a disruptive game-changer. 3D printing expert Luke Smoothy, Director of Get It Made, explores some of the emerging innovations and benefits that this existing, fast-developing technology offers.

Significant growth within the medical 3D printing market is forecast to jump from just over £1.6 billion in sales in 2022, to more than £3.2 billion in 2026. While customisation, lower production costs, and quick turnarounds are said to be factors, what about the wider-reaching benefits?


The industry benefits of MJF

Additive manufacturing is providing solutions for a whole raft of requirements, ranging from PPE to medical devices and isolation wards, as well as being used to create custom implants to meet the individual needs of a patient, improving functionality and patient comfort.

3D-printed surgical guides can act as an aid to surgeons performing joint replacement, spinal, and other complex surgeries, leading to improved accuracy and precision during procedures, increased success rates, and reduced recovery times. Yet such is the potential of 3D printing in this field over the next few years and beyond, these capabilities could merely prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Certainly, one type of 3D printing that could accelerate medical innovation is multi-jet fusion technology (known as MJF). Invented by HP, it is a powder-based additive manufacturing process which involves selectively fusing layers of powder material using thermal energy.

MJF is known for its compatibility to the healthcare and medical sectors due to its ability to quickly produce biocompatible custom one-off parts. In particular, custom-made orthotics and prosthetics have seen a significant rise over recent years, as MJF can create detailed lattices that can be matched to the user’s body shape and skin tone.

Indeed, 3D printing’s ability to simplify complex geometries such as this will pave the way for creating printed ‘smart materials’, with geometries that are nearly impossible to produce using other methods, in doing so enhancing current devices with new properties and improved performance. Some of the smart devices currently being researched include prosthetic limbs with built-in sensitivity, self-expanding stents, self-healing joint replacements, and drug delivery devices that respond to infection.


Stepping up production: iOrthotics 

Among HP’s achievements over the past few years is its work with Australian manufacturer iOrthotics, which develops custom made orthotic devices for podiatrists, and is illustrative of how the use of MJF 3D printing technology can lead to improving patient outcomes while also reducing waste.

Tasked with finding a solution that could enable the development of higher quality custom orthotics, HP also had to ensure that the products were stronger and lighter than those made using other manufacturing processes. Traditionally, they were made using plaster of Paris casts, an inaccurate and messy method that often resulted in almost unwearable orthotics. Furthermore, the equipment used in traditional manufacturing, including milling machines and grinders, took up a significant amount of space and subtractive manufacturing processes were also notoriously wasteful. To create a pair of orthotics that weighed a mere 100 grams required 1.5 kilograms of material.

Part of that better solution sought by iOrthotics called for the integration of HP’s technology into a digital workflow that was faster, more sustainable and less expensive, allowing iOrthotics to produce custom orthotics, on demand.

“The goals for any orthotic device are to support the foot, improve foot function and correct alignment,” says Podiatrist Ian Goodchild. “With 3D scanning and printing we saw an opportunity to improve the quality of orthotic devices, while also scaling up our production and reducing the waste involved with traditional methods.”

The outcome saw the implementation of a 3D scanning solution which enabled more exact measurement as well as more portability, allowing the foot to be measured in a more natural position. Custom software was also developed to automate much of the work involved with designing a print-ready orthotic. Adoption of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology also meant that the orthotics company’s criteria of strength, durability and economic viability were met, as was quality, having found that the materials used and the quality of product it could produce was superior to alternative methods.

In addition, HP’s space-saving equipment allowed them to operate more efficiently, and a speedier production process enabled iOrthotics to meet rapidly expanding business growth.

The results were a testament to HP’s pioneering development in the 3D printing world and more specifically, with MJF. iOrthotics tripled its daily production output, from 30 to approximately 90 orthotic devices, while having the added capability to increase capacity in accordance with increased demand.

Thanks to extensive research and testing iOrthotics conducted with the University of Queensland, it was proven that orthotic devices manufactured by HP’s technology were 40-60% stronger than those produced using traditional polypropylene milling.


Revolutionising physical therapy: Optima Recovery

MJF technology like HP’s is creating a game-changing technological shift, making mass customisation possible, as well as the ability to quickly develop robust, lighter weight, consolidated parts, while creating a speed-to-market advantage for medical innovators, including start-ups such as Optima Recovery.  

In collaboration with Athena 3D Manufacturing, the disruptive medtech start-up wanted to create low cost, higher volume production quality parts for its ground-breaking combination thermotherapy and cryotherapy device. Harnessing HP’s MJF 3D printing technology, together they re-engineered 60% of parts, enabling the move from prototyping to production with one seamless solution.

Thanks to MJF, the digitally manufactured parts for each device can be produced in one and a half print builds, allowing parts to be delivered significantly more quickly than with injection moulding and other technologies. These parts not only offer better performance, but as they were consolidated, have reduced assembly time by 75 to 85% in some cases.


The future of 3D printing

With the boundaries of manufacturing and prototyping being stretched like never before thanks to the potential offered by MJF technology, combined with fast-evolving innovation, the decade ahead now holds even greater promise for many industries, not least of all healthtech and medtech. And with the integration of 3D printing with emerging technologies such as AI and robotics heralding a new era of automated and efficient manufacturing processes, an extraordinary shift is occurring. Naturally, there will be challenges ahead, but now is the time for manufacturers to fully embrace the potential of 3D printing in the medical sector.