2 tech firms are using 3D printing to offer more affordable and efficient healthcare for all, from cheaper prosthetics to better neonatal care

  • 3D printing has the ability to turn the manufacturing and healthcare worlds on their heads.
  • Companies pioneering 3D printing in medicine say that it saves significant time and money compared to traditional ways of making life-changing devices.
  • For example, Colorado-based Toughware Prosthetics, which has been creating affordable and accessible prosthetics for amputees for almost two decades, partnered with 3D-printing company Markforged to speed up the process for building prosthetics and decreased costs significantly.
  • Minneapolis-headquartered Protolabs also recently partnered with MedStar Health to develop a 3D-printed gravity feed syringe holder that can alleviate some of the work of nurses.
  • This article is part of our ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
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Proponents of 3D printing say that it’s a game changer. The technology has revolutionized industries as diverse as toy makers, tool manufacturers, and even food producers. Now, its latest frontier could likely be healthcare.

In contrast to traditional ‘subtractive manufacturing’ techniques – where an object is made by removing parts from a piece of raw material (think carving a wooden object or forging metal by pouring it into a mold) – 3D printing consists of manufacturers incrementally adding material layer by layer.

Here’s how two companies are leveraging this process to substantially improve upon current healthcare methods.

Making prosthetics more accessible in the developing world

Bradley Veatch, the president and CEO of Colorado-based Toughware Prosthetics, has been creating affordable and accessible prosthetics for amputees for almost two decades. While technology enabled him to engineer high-functioning prosthetics, he ran into the same problem over and over again. “I had this device that was so expensive that there were probably 10 people in the United States that could afford the thing,” Veatch said.

Wearing Toughware Prosthetics' 3D-printed devices.

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Wearing Toughware Prosthetics’ 3D-printed devices.
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Markforged

According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization and World Bank, more than one billion people – that’s 15% of the world’s population – experience some form of disability, with one-fifth experiencing significant disabilities. Veatch’s experiences taught him that this population needs more durable and accessible options. He moved into creating prosthetics for people in developing countries who rely heavily on physical activity in their daily lives.

Since 2017, Veatch has partnered with Massachusetts firm Markforged, which makes metal and carbon fibre 3D printers. He bought his first 3D printer to overcome the issue of individually manufacturing complex parts, which would often take up to six weeks.

“I’m actually able to get a lot more done in a much more concentrated timeframe. I can produce an engineering design print and then begin running tests, sometimes even the same day. I can print what I need, when I need it, and continue with my iterative design process,” he said.

3D printing keeps costs down for Toughware. One prototype bracket – part of the initial design for a piece which holds two objects together – was going to cost Veatch $65 to be machined out of aluminum, but cost only a few dollars when printed using his carbon fiber 3D printer.

“It was strong and just what I was looking for in the application – and it only took five hours to print,” he explained.

Working with nurses to improve neonatal care and manufacture rapid solutions

In July of 2019, Minneapolis-headquartered Protolabs started partnering with neonatal intensive care unit nurses and biomedical engineers at MedStar Health to develop a 3D-printed gravity feed syringe holder to use at each incubator station caring for a premature baby.

Blueprint for Protolabs' syringe holder for MedStar Health.

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Blueprint for Protolabs’ syringe holder for MedStar Health.
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Protolabs

“Depending on the number of newborns, and how often they feed, nurses can spend hours each day holding a syringe above an incubator while milk or liquid formula drains into the baby via a stomach tube,” said Protolabs’ spokesperson Rachel Hunt.

After speaking with the experts who care for neonatal babies every day, the Protolabs team offered 3D-printing guidance. From there, the biomedical engineers were able to quickly vet and test their ideas within days, allowing them to quickly pivot or expand on solutions.

The final product.

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The final product.
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Protolabs

For this project, the end result was a compact device that can hold four different sizes of syringes. Each syringe holder was rapidly manufactured and returned to the hospital within the week. In terms of medical design, Hunt said that this is only the beginning.

“Designers needing answers they can only get by having parts in hand can have them within a day. From a clinical standpoint, patient specific, customized devices benefit from the low volume production and complex geometries that 3D printing is able to manufacture,” she added.

As for the future, Protolabs is looking to pioneer readily accessible lightweight parts for aerospace, complex geometries for patient-specific medical devices, and automotive parts printed as one assembly.

The 3D-printed device in action.

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The 3D-printed device in action.
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Protolabs

There have been concerns that 3D printing could be used by bad actors, such as a person printing their own gun to get around licensing restrictions. But this generation of emerging tech companies is aiming to show that 3D printing is a force that can be used for good in solving some of society’s greatest challenges – particularly when it comes to the care of our most vulnerable.