Think that 3D printing is just a fad? A plaything for geeks and scientists? Something that you just can’t see catching on?
It’s understandable. Some of the stories that have been flying around about what the technology can do in recent months include ideas that still seem primitive at this stage. For example yes a 3D printed car has been made, but let’s not put our motors for sale in Auto Trader just yet.
And some just seem a little gimmicky, right? Great, we can print messages on our toast in the morning. What would we want to do that for? God knows. But let’s face it, we’re not going to ascend into the abyss if we don’t start printing words onto our bread right now.
However, what if it could completely change your life? What if it could even save your life? That’s when it should be taken seriously.
Well 3D printing already is doing this. There are people out there in the world right now who are walking and living that, without the technology, might not be otherwise.
Below are 6 awe-inspiring stories of how 3D printing has already been used to change (and save) lives:
Pensioner successfully has 3D printed jaw implanted
It’s always tragic if you’re ever told that a loved one cannot undergo certain operations and procedures because of their age. And in June 2012, that would have been a fate an 83-year-old woman in the Netherlands would have suffered as reconstructive surgery to remedy a chronic bone infection would have been deemed too risky.
But technicians from a company called LayerWise worked with surgeons to build, and then successfully implant, a 3D printed lower jaw for her. Made from fine layers of lasered titanium powder, the part was composed of joints and cavities to encourage muscle attachment and the growth of nerves and veins.
Weighing 107 grammes, the “jaw” took just a few hours to print and just four hours to implant, significantly quicker than if the procedure been undertaken without a 3D printed part. Remarkably, the woman went home within four days of her surgery.
Watch the video of how the jaw was made:
Paraplegic walks again with 3D printed ‘exoskeleton’
In 1992, following a freak skiing accident in Colorado, Amanda Boxtel was told that she would never walk again.
But in 2011, a firm called EksoBionics built an exoskeleton suit (a robotic suit that fits around the legs and spine) specifically for her. The result? Amanda walked again for the first time in almost 20 years.
And in February 2014, 3D printing pioneers 3D Systems broke new ground when they revealed that they had created an identical exoskeleton suit, again completely bespoke to Amanda, made using 3D printed parts. Working with EksoBionics, they were able to create CAD designs of the contours of Amanda’s thighs, shins and spine before printing out the parts to create the suit.
Boy born without fingers has prosthetic hand printed
12-year-old Leon McCarthy from Massachusetts was born without fingers on his left hand. Doctors told his parents that restricted blood flow whilst in the womb meant that Leon’s hand had not fully developed.
For over a decade he got used to performing daily tasks with just one full functioning hand. Leon’s father Paul had previously spent two years looking into new and emerging technologies that could help give his son a prosthetic limb; a traditional prosthesis procedure would have cost the family $20-30,000.
Then one day in 2013, Paul came across a video on the web posted by an inventor in Washington showing a child using a prosthetic hand that he had designed and then made using parts printed with a 3D printer. It was the inventors intention that these designs could allow people to print out and build their own prosthetics at home.
So Paul downloaded the designs, printed out the parts on a 3D printer at the family home and used the assembly instructions posted online to build a hand for Leon. It worked perfectly. Leon thought “it was pretty awesome” that he could pick up things like a bottle of water, a feat that most of us take for granted every day.
And the cost of his new hand? Just $10. “Making your kids happy is the most rewarding thing you can do as a dad,” said Paul.
Woman is saved after having a 3D printed skull implant
A 22-year-old woman in the Netherlands survived a 23-hour operation to become the first patient in the world to receive a full skull transplant using a 3D printed implant.
She suffered from a condition that caused extra bone inside her skull to grow, putting pressure onto her brain. After being diagnosed following complaints of severe headaches, she eventually lost her sight and motor neurological control. The condition would have gone on to kill her.
But working in conjunction with Australian firm Anatomics, doctors at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht were able to build a copy of the woman’s skull using a CT scan, adapted to prevent the unwanted growth. The ‘skull’ was then printed out in acrylic using a 3D printer. After they removed almost all of her cranium, doctors then placed the 3D printed implant into the woman’s head.
Following the operation, she regained all of her sight, went back to work and all without any real signs to suggest she’d ever had the surgery; remarkable.
Warning: the video below contains graphic scenes during surgery. It’s also in Dutch so you’ll need to turn on captions.
Man has face reconstructed using 3D printed implants
In 2012 Stephen Power from Cardiff survived a horrific motorcycle accident. Despite wearing a crash helmet, he was left with a fractured skull and had broken both cheekbones, his top jaw and his nose, spending four months in hospital. The permanent disfiguration of his face left Stephen with little confidence to venture out in public, opting instead to wear hats and glasses to “disguise” his injuries.
But in 2014, surgeons at the Morriston Hospital in Swansea used 3D printed parts to completely rebuild his face. They used CT scans to design ‘bones’ and titanium braces to hold them in place. All of these parts were printed off on a 3D printer.
The procedure and implants completely realigned Stephen’s face. He now feels confident enough to go out in public without the need to cover up. The doctors that helped Stephen hoped to see the use of 3D printers becoming more widespread in the NHS in the future after the success of his procedure.
3D printing saves dying two-month-old baby boy
And finally, arguably the most heart-warming story on this list. In 2013, doctors at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital used a 3D printed implant never before used on a human in a final attempt to save a baby from dying.
At six-weeks-old, Kaiba Gionfriddo stopped breathing in a restaurant. As he lay flat on the table, his skin began turning blue. Kaiba was diagnosed with bronchial malacia, a rare obstruction in his lungs that made it difficult for him to breathe. He had to be given CPR every day. Both the infant’s parents and doctors were resigned to the possibility that Kaiba would never leave the hospital alive.
Their only remaining hope was to try a procedure that had never been attempted anywhere in the world. Using CT scans, doctors gaged the exact measurements of Kaiba’s lungs and windpipe on a computer. With this, they produced a splint out of a biological powder called polycaprolactone on a 3D printer. The splint was then placed onto Kaiba’s windpiper. Instantly, his lungs began to rise and Kaiba started to breathe normally.
The procedure was an immediate success. 15 months later and Kaiba was still breathing normally on his own and looking forward to a happier childhood.
The video below is brilliant: