3D printing: coming soon to a hospital near you

Imagine doing severe damage to your jaw and needing a replacement. Today, you’d ironically be charged an arm and a leg, with a wait time of practically forever. Now picture walking in, having the doctor print a physical replacement jaw, and booking you in for surgery that very day. It could happen, thanks to some impressive developments in 3D printing.

Over the weekend, The University of Hasselt in Belgium announced that it had created a 3D printed jaw replacement for an 83 year old woman with an infected jaw.

In a world first, the team of scientists created a replacement jaw using a 3D printer building it out of titanium powder. Once printed, the jaw was given a “bioceramic coating”, a type of ceramic material that gets along with bio-matter, such as skin and gum material.

With a titanium build, the jaw was both strong and reasonably light, managing a weight of 107 grams – 30 grams heavier than a regular bone jaw and light enough for the patient to get used to.

The speed was the most interesting thing, with the entire build process being a few hours, compared with the several day requirement that traditional manufacturing entails. With a quick build, doctors can get to implanting the new body part as soon as possible, instead of waiting weeks for the object to arrive.

3D printing technology isn’t a new concept, although the printers have been getting better for the past few years. In fact, several companies have started announcing 3D printers coming in under $2,000, effectively making 3D printing more economical.

Most recently, audio electronics company Roland announced the “iModela”, a 3D printer sitting under a thousand dollars able to create objects from foam, balsa wood, and plastic.

While these sorts of materials obviously aren’t good enough for crafting a replacement body part, as industrial grade 3D printers are rolled out to hospitals around the world and become commonplace, we could see quick 3D replacement limbs and implants become a thing of the future.