For the production of medical devices, doctors and patients are reliant upon custom-made designs or individualized small series. The high costs of metallic biocompatible materials and their processing increase total expenses. Cobalt alloys are difficult to machine as shape complexity rises. Therefore some implants are obtained by casting or traditional metal powder processing methods, which require tooling and is costly for small or unique series. As titanium is relatively difficult to cast in complicated shapes, titanium ingots are machined.
Recently, medical equipment manufacturers are increasingly adopting metal additive manufacturing technologies (direct metal laser sintering and electron beam melting) into the design and manufacturing of medical implants. The early use of this advanced manufacturing route for patient specific implants is encouraging. In conjunction with surgeons, engineers can produce more advanced and anatomical conforming implants and prosthesis, exploiting the power of medical imaging (X-ray, MRI, CT scans, etc…). They can build medical implants in nearly any imaginable geometry and sometimes within 24 hours.
Rapid manufacturing of custom implant is a highly valuable ability where standard implants are often insufficient for some patients facing complex cases. Previously, surgeons had to perform bone graft surgeries, use scalpels or drill implants in metal and plastic to obtain a desired shape, size, and fit.
Advantages of additive manufacturing for medical applications are:
Individualization: Customized prosthesis/implants involve a shorter and less painful and stressful adaptation phase for the patient. Best-fit devices also make the surgical operation less difficult and stressful for the surgeon.
Complex geometries: Some free-form structures are hardly or not feasible with conventional manufacturing methods (milling, turning or casting, etc.) while there is a growing desire to mimic bionic principles of complexity in order to accelerate the patient’s healing process.
Functional integration: Additively manufactured medical devices are able to fulfill multiple functions with fewer components and manufacturing steps. Post-built, they can feature both a porous structure and a rough surface, improving bone integration. No further additional spray-on coating or surface texturing is required.
Reduced surgical costs: When a patient is cared for with an efficient product, financial outlays for the hospital stay and follow-on treatment are reduced. As AM productivity increases and in-hospital process of 3D-scan-to-part speeds up, finely customized devices will enable ambulatory surgery to suffice so that patients are not kept in the hospital.
Rapid availability: The lead time is shortened and 3D-printed medical devices can be applied sooner to patients, which is better.