Accumulation of technological advancements in the renewables sector, finally results in an historic moment when a nation, namely Scotland, owes its lion’s share of energy production to clean technologies, effectively embracing the global energy challenge. Still, some innovations are used even more innovatively. Drones for instance were commercially utilised for parcel delivery for the first time this September, by DHL. On the front of decentralised digitalised finance, cryptocurrency applications are similarly expanding rapidly and might soon range from copyrighting and patenting to messaging. So it’s natural that desktop 3D-printing, one of 2013’s most anticipated technologies, has found its way into the medical world.
Additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping or 3D-printing as it is commonly known, is a manufacturing technique used to create three-dimensional objects in a layer-by-layer process controlled by a computer. Even though the technology was conceptualised in the 1980s, it really took off after 2000 when it started gaining popularity in industrial manufacturing. Now 3D-printers are becoming household appliances with desktop printers available to the public, with prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds.
The potential of 3D-printers, able to rapidly create three-dimensional objects that are easily customisable, was quickly recognised by the medical community in development of prostheses, with applications of the technology dating back to as early as 2002. Already then, 3D-printed prostheses were considered more accurate, safer, more cost effective and faster to produce than their conventionally made counterparts (Bassoli et al.). Yet, as advancements in medicine and surgical techniques have increased cancer survival rates, particularly in the case of head and neck, i.e. maxillofacial conditions, similarly have the numbers of patients requiring reconstructive surgery grown and subsequently, the demand for affordable soft tissue prostheses.
Until now, 3D-printing has been usually used in the construction of the prostheses’ mold, as actual 3D-printed prostheses found absent the desired mechanical properties and a mold is used to create a silicone prostheses instead. At the same time, the machinery utilised is typically of an industrial grade, so although these methods and technologies greatly accelerate the final products, cost still remains quite high, at prices ranging from £262.81 for an ear mold by Magicfirm, to £2552.8 for a finished product from Fripp Design & Research, according to He et al . A recent study highlights this challenge and proceeds to utilise widely available desktop 3D-printers for the construction of an ear mold and consequently a prosthetic ear, at the affordable cost of £19.50.
The team used the Kinect depth sensor (originally produced for Microsoft’s Xbox 360) to scan the original model of an ear, then Rhinoceros V4.0 was used to create a mold (like an imprint an ear may leave in a piece of clay) and Slic3r to create a file that would translate into instructions for the desktop 3D-printer RepGo X1. The molds were produced using ABS, a thermoplastic polymer which transitions into a liquid-like state at approximately 105oC. However due to the nature of the 3D-printing process, which deposits the printing material in layers and gives the final printing product uneven/ step-like surfaces, smoothening of the final product is necessary. In this case the technique used relied on the ability of acetone to dissolve ABS. The mold was exposed to acetone vapors which gradually dissolved the molds surface, making it smoother and appropriate for casting. Experimentations suggest the ideal time of acetone exposure to achieve the optimal result was 12 minutes.
The final product, the prosthetic ear, performed great mechanically, outcompeting products created using other materials in tensile and tear strength. Similarly, the final product scored high in elongation percentage (indicator of maximum stretching achievable), hardness and heat resistance allowing it to meet general requirements of prostheses.
Of course the most attractive aspect of the method is the cost effectiveness. All materials, and devices used are easily accessible, affordable and allow anyone to produce a mold and simple prostheses at home. Additionally the mold is reusable and the labor cost/time is insignificant. So it seems that 3D-printing may provide the public with a creative free rein, additionally to fundamentally changing health care and personalised medicine.
In a world where 3D-printers become household appliances, what other innovative applications of this technology may soon be making an appearance?