3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), refers to processes used to create three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. Early additive manufacturing equipment were developed in the early 1980s. In real terms, however, the origins of 3D printing can be traced back to 1986, when the first patent was issued for stereolithography (a form of 3D printing) apparatus (SLA). This patent belonged to one Charles (Chuck) Hull, who first invented his SLA machine in 1983. 3D printing has currently been applied in the manufacturing, medical, industry and sociocultural sectors. In the last few years, 3D printing has been employed extensively in the cultural heritage field for the preservation and restoration of several ornaments. 3D printing is a truly revolutionary technology, however, its true potential may be realized through its applications in the field of medical sciences.
Surgical uses of 3D printing-centric therapies have a history beginning in the mid-1990s with anatomical modeling for bony reconstructive surgery planning. Patient-matched implants were a natural extension of this work, leading to truly personalized implants that fit one unique individual. 3D printing has also allowed for virtual planning of surgeries which can greatly assist doctors in the future. 3D printing can be used to produce low-cost organ implants, which is truly revolutionary for the healthcare sector. 3D printing has already been used to replicate human blood vessels, ears, bones, skin, heart valves, and synthetic organs.
In 2014 alone, the 3D-printing industry grew by 35.2%. 3D-printed ankle replacements, 3D-printed casts, and 3D-printed pills have all been developed in the past two years, with encouraging success rates. The 3D-printed cast, for example, heals bones 40–80% faster than traditional casts.
3D printing may be used to produce low cost prosthetic parts. It is being used to manufacture personalized plaster casts, which can well and truly transform the experience of breaking a bone. It may be used to produce medical equipment cheaply and quickly. It may also be used to produce tumor and organ models, which can revolutionize surgery planning and research as well as teaching. Last year, the FDA just approved an epilepsy drug called Spritam that is made by 3D printers. It prints out the powdered drug layer by layer to make it dissolve faster than average pills. This could revolutionize distribution of medicines. Just imagine how convenient it would be if we could print our own medicinal drugs at home!
In March 2014, surgeons in Swansea used 3D printed parts to rebuild the face of a motorcyclist who had been seriously injured in a road accident. This could be the start of a revolution in the health industry. If used correctly, 3D printing has the potential to change the world for the better.