Does healthcare hold the future for 3D printing?
According to Gartner’s latest Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, medical applications are leading to some of the most significant deployments of the next-gen technology. The research firm’s report reveals that 3D printing of medical devices has reached the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” but certain specialist applications are already becoming the norm in medical care.
“In the healthcare industry, 3DP is already in mainstream use to produce medical items that need to be tailored to individuals, such as hearing aids and dental devices,” explained Pete Basiliere, Gartner research director.
One notable example is hearing aids, as manufacturers are now offering personalized devices that fit to the exact shape of a customer’s ear.
“This is evidence that using 3DP for mass customization of consumer goods is now viable, especially given that the transition from traditional manufacturing in this market took less than two years. Routine use of 3DP for dental implants is also not far from this level of market maturity,” Basiliere added.
Some medical 3DP technologies are further from mainstream use, but are equally, if not more, exciting. These include hip and knee replacements, which are a $15 billion industry and one of the most common surgical procedures. Early trials using personalized 3D-printed replacements suggest improved healing times and function of the implant, as well as an increased success rate in more complex operations. Given the size of the market, Gartner predicts that 3D-printed hip and knee replacements, in addition to other recurrent internal and external medical devices, will be in mainstream use within two to five years.
Looking further out, at least five to 10 years to mainstream adoption, there is bioprinting. 3D bioprinting, which has been featured in a number of news stories as of late, is found in two categories on the Hype Cycle: one focused on producing living tissues for human transplant, the other for life sciences’ research and development.
Gartner goes on to note that 3D printers have already proven to be capable of creating cells, proteins, DNA and drugs, but are currently being held back by a couple of “significant barriers.”
There is still rapid advancement outside of medical fields as well. While 3D prototyping has for many years been the only mainstream use, it will likely be joined by many technologies that will spur much wider utilization of printers outside of specialist fields.
“Advancements outside of the actual printers themselves may prove to be the catalyst that brings about widespread adoption,” Basiliere said. “Technologies such as 3D scanning, 3D print creation software and 3D printing service bureaus are all maturing quickly, and all — in their own way — have the potential to make high quality 3DP more accessible and affordable.”
3D printing software, for example, has in the past been limited to commercial 3D CAD programs that were not simple to use. Consumer-oriented design libraries and modelling tools are becoming established, providing a far simpler method for producing printable designs. Moreover, 3D scanners are also advancing in adoption and dropping in price, enabling users to create complex printable models of real-world items without any CAD skills.
Though still several years away, the 3D printing of consumable products has been added to the Hype Cycle. This should come to no surprise, given the recent debuts of food, chocolate and even drug printers. Also listed in the “Innovation Trigger” stage include intellectual property protection, macro 3D printing and classroom 3D printing.
Beyond that, the emergence of 3DP service bureaus continues to accelerate. This enables enthusiasts and organizations to test and experiment with the capabilities of advanced 3DP systems in situations where an investment in purchasing a 3D printer would be hard to justify. As this ecosystem matures around the printers, so market demand and competition will keep increasing and more use cases will become commonplace.