Get Regular Updates!



Getty Images

The 3D-printed healthcare revolution

The 3D-printed healthcare revolution

Need brain surgery? We’ll get printing now.

The 3D-printed healthcare revolution

Imagine you need a complicated and risky operation to insert an implant into your brain.

The implant has been custom designed for you and printed on the hospital’s 3D printer.

Earlier, your surgeon used a 3D-printed model of your brain to practice the operation.

And she’s printed a precise, sterile surgical tool to use during the procedure.

The future of medicine?

It might seem like science fiction but 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is on the path to revolutionise medicine.

Proponents say the technology could speed up surgical procedures, produce customised prosthetics and even print human tissue capable of replacing organs. And it comes with some big advantages.

RMIT 3D printing expert Alex Kingsbury says where typical manufacturing might have a batch size of 100,000, 3D printing offers a batch size of one.

That means it’s easy to manufacture a single product designed for a particular patient.

View Larger
NASA use 3D-printed tools too: this shows the evolution of their ‘bungee’ tool as it went from a simple, 3D-printed object to an increasingly refined tool used in the Veggie plant chamber aboard the International Space Station.

Using 3D printing also means you can throw traditional design rules out the window.

“You might, say, be able to print a structure for an implant that integrates so much better with bone because it’s got a really complex surface,” Alex says.

“And that means that bone can grow into the implant.”

3D printing can also make objects very lightweight.

“If it’s a wearable or if it’s an implantable that makes a big difference to the comfort level of a patient,” Alex says.

Regulatory headache

The technology does have some drawbacks.

3D printing is usually more expensive that traditional techniques (although in some cases it can be cheaper).

And personalised, 3D-printed devices are proving to be a headache for regulators.

Historically, custom-made medical devices haven’t been subject to the same level of scrutiny as mass-produced devices.

That’s because they were considered low risk, or limited in number.

But 3D printing could see an explosion in personalised implants, prompting the Therapeutic Goods Administration to propose a new regulatory scheme for the devices.

It’s also proven challenging to provide the evidence needed for doctors, health funds and patients to adopt the technology.

How can researchers prove an implant is safe and effective in large numbers if each device is created for an individual patient?

View Larger
Right now, surgeons have to harvest veins from elsewhere in your body to use as grafts in surgery. What if we could 3D print a medically accurate a human blood vessel instead?


“The frameworks in which we are used to assessing technologies, medical devices, are not frameworks that are actually suitable for 3D printing,” Alex says.

“That’s really down to the customisation element … which makes it quite hard or challenging to standardise information.”

Printing body parts

For Alex, traditional manufacturing produces “dumb products”.

“They’re basic products, they’re designed around traditional manufacturing tools and having some complexity in that product adds enormously to the cost,” she says.

“One of the classic lines about 3D printing is ‘complexity is free’.”

And one of the most exciting developments – the 3D printing of human cells – is still yet to come.

“When we do that, we 3D print the scaffold and we then grow the cells within that scaffold,” Alex says.

“3D printing of cartilage has been done in the lab quite well, and that’s something that everyone is feeling quite confident about now.”

But it’s very much still in the research phase.

“This is technology that’s sitting in universities currently,” Alex says.

“So we’re not going to be walking around with 3D-printed hearts anytime soon.”

View Larger
Image|Getty Images
It’s just a model for now, but working 3D printed organs are the next step.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?