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Opinion: how surgical safety’s on the up thanks to 3D printing

Published: 2 May 2017 - Sarah Mead

By Richard Hoy, Laser Lines, 3dprinting.co.uk

It’s impossible to overstate the difference that 3D printing has made to the quality of human life. Not only has it revolutionised product development, allowing us all to reap the benefits of faster iterative design, but in healthcare it has literally been a lifesaver.

Doctors no longer have to rely on flat MRI and CT scans, combined with their own calculations. With 3D printing, particularly since the advent of multi-material devices like the Connex3 range and J750, it’s now possible to reproduce clinical data in a tactile, three-dimensional form. It’s revolutionised the way surgeons are diagnosing illnesses and planning interventions to repair damage and remove unwanted growths.

The perfect material mix

A Stratasys-commissioned investigation into the clinical and economic promise of 3D printing for surgical planning identified 60 instances in which clinicians used patient-specific printed models to help reduce operating time and surgical complexity. (You can download the white paper here.)

The J750’s ability to use more materials at once is key. It means you can create clear parts.  Other components in different colours are clearly visible inside. Constructing such a model needn’t be difficult, either.

Traditional scan data of the sort that doctors already is enough to generate an STL file that incorporates each of the different materials. Surgeons and medical experts can then study the body part as a 3D model when working out how to operate, which helps them see things in much more depth.

The models help surgeons plan for – and sometimes rule out – work on cardiac lesions and surgery, liver transplants and tumour removal, with Stratasys devices used in half of all cases examined by the report writers. The new technology is delivering supplementary benefits too, with cardiovascular surgeons pointing to increased patient safety and clinician confidence as two favourable consequences of its introduction.

Building on past success

The process isn’t entirely new. You could certainly build models in the past, but you would have been using ABS or another FDM thermoplastic material. You could create a realistic heart or other organ using wash out supports but using ABS plastic doesn’t let you look inside or get a complete, almost three-dimensional X-ray of the body part, as you can with something like the J750.

Neither is the J750 the only printer capable of producing multi-material models. The Connex3 range enables rapid tooling and prototyping in multiple materials, but can only handle three different materials at once. That wouldn’t stop you using a mixture of clear and opaque materials, flexible parts, and rubber over-mouldings, but the J750’s versatility is hard to beat. You simply have more options.



 
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