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3D Printing - An Introduction

This guide will provide a general introduction to 3D printing.


Many industries, from art and theater, to aerospace and medicine, are using 3D printing in new and interesting ways.

Healthcare Applications

3D printing is being used a lot in the world of assistive devices and prosthetics. Given the quick turn around of development and printing time it allows for experimentation and prototyping with less overhead than more traditional manufacturing processes. This allows for the creation of individualized prosthetics, often at a fraction of the cost, and allows for more varied and creative forms.

In addition there is the ability to 3D print parts for assistive devices. These can be anything from a simple handle designed to allow those with limited grip the ability to hold or open small objects, or parts of an exoskeleton designed to aid those with paralysis to walk. (See the left image above.)

Further Reading

undefinedPrograms like Enabling the Future bring together a global network of volunteers and match them to those in need, to print out free and low cost upper limb prosthetics.

This brings the technology to those who may not be able to afford a prosthetic, or who do not have access to medical care. In addition programs like this bring 3D printing technology into remote, or lower income communities, giving local health care providers and volunteers the ability to democratize the technology.

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undefinedThere are many dental applications for 3D printing, from clinical to education.

Instead of using traditional methods, biosafe material can be used to print out appliances in office. These include night guards and aligners. Dentists can either use impressions or digital scans of the teeth to print these in biosafe material.

In addition, crowns are a very common usage of this technology. Dentists scan the broken tooth, create a model of the crown, and can either print it or use a CNC machine to carve the crownt out of porcelain. Some of these processes take less than 30 minutes. This is significantly less than the several day or more wait for traditional methods.

Dentists can also manipulate 3D dental scans in the computer to create printed surgical guides or flexible gingival masks (see second image), that can be used to adjust dental prostheses.

3D printing models are also very helpful for patient education, allowing them to see conditions in three dimensions, and for learning applications in the clinical and school environments.

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undefinedSurgical applications for 3D printing are still new, but very promising. 3D printed orthopedic implants, are already being used, but surgical planning, training, and education are also benefiting.

Using MRI and CT data, 3D models of a patient's condition, such as a cancerous tumor against an organ, can be created. These models can then be printed out. Such models are already being used for patient education, but can also prove useful for surgical planning. Having a 3D model gives healthcare providers the ability to better visualize the problem area and plan the best strategy for treatment.

In addition these models are being used to train for surgery. Exact models of the organs are printed in soft silicone and practice surgery is done on them, giving surgeons the ability to practice under similar conditions before the patent ever enters the OR.

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undefinedBioprinting is a process where biolocial materials such as cells are combined together to create tissue-like structures that imitate natural tissues.

Instead of plastic the process uses 'bioink' which is a combination of living cells and a compatible base like collagen, alginate, or nanocellulose.

The model is created using data from a patient's MRI or CT scan, which is used to create a 'blueprint' that tells the printer how to deposit the material. The bioink is deposited layer by layer into the base material, which acts as scaffolding and nutriment for the printed cells.

Future applications of this technology include artificial organs, skin grafting, and bone and tissue regeneration.

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undefinedWhile organ replacement is still a ways down the road, 3D printing is already being used to replace bone in a variety of ways.

Titanium parts are being printed and used in bone and joint replacement surgeries. However a new and upcoming use is for targeted replacement of bone for implants due to injury, cancer, or other medical conditions.

3D printing is especially useful in this area, as the types of structures that can be engineered are much sturdier than traditional implants, which are often narrow and must be held in place by pins. Specially designed implants like this are modeled after the patients own bones, are wider to offer additional support, and are designed with room for nerved to be threaded through. This allows This allows for the surrounding bone to grow into the print to secure it into place.

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undefined3D printed models are being used in the education setting as well. With the relative cheapness of materials, it can be more cost effective to print out teaching models, rather than relying on more expensive models that may break or be lost.

Specialized models can also be created to teach a specific type of content or to allow students to practice skills like incisions or intubation.

The image to the right shows this in practice. Laura Solis, a master's student in Cell Systems and Anatomy, 3D printed models of the pelvis and perineum regions, which she then augmented using layered felt and other materials. These models were used in student anatomical education.

By printing the bony pelvis in 3D, I was able to build the inside of the pelvis and the perineum layer by layer. Most importantly, this model showed important spatial relationships that students have difficulty grasping during their first exposure to the anatomy. -Laura Solis

The technology is also being used in Occupational and Physical Therapy education. Cost effective training tools can be easily printed and shared. Students can also use the technology to create clinical solutions to help patients in their therapy that are unique to that patient.

Further Reading