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The Future of 3D Printing in Orthopedic


The Future of 3D Printing in Orthopedic

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Advances in 3D printing are revolutionizing the field of orthopedics. CT or MRI images of an individual patient’s bones and joints can be directly used to instruct a 3D printer. The printer then lays down successive layers of material to produce a very realistic body part. These facsimiles are increasingly being used in various ways.

Surgical planning

One interesting use of 3D printing is surgical planning and training of surgeons. CT images taken of an individual patient can be used to prepare extremely detailed, realistic models of the body part to be treated. The models are then constructed by a 3D printer, allowing the surgeon to carefully examine all aspects of the individual patient’s anatomy while planning a surgery.

The models can also actually be subjected to orthopedic procedures like drilling or placing a plate, which allows the surgeon to actually practice the procedure multiple times, perhaps comparing different approaches or methods, prior to working on the actual patient. This improves the chance of success of the operation, reduces the amount of time required for the operation, and also reduces the need to perform re-operations due to suboptimal results from the first operation.

Custom instruments

3D printing also allows surgeons to create custom instruments that can be used during surgery. The surgeon can either design a special instrument from scratch or simply print out an expensive already on the market instrument that will only be used in certain rarely performed procedures, making it difficult to justify its purchase.

Custom casts

One enterprising graduate student has used a 3D printer to create a lightweight custom exoskeleton that can be used to replace the traditional clunky, heavy plaster casts currently in use to support a limb while a broken bone heals.


Custom implants can be produced through 3D printing and placed in patients. For example, one patient had a skull defect fixed by creating an implant that exactly matched the defect and then placing it in the patient. Such procedures are becoming increasingly common.

Bioceramic composites are being used to print out custom implants that resemble actual human bone amazingly well; these implants could be used to replace the use of cadaver bone for filling in bony defects in the limbs or other parts of the body. Some orthopedic surgeons are anticipating that soon they will be able to custom make joint implants for each individual patient that work better than the ones currently available.

3D printers have even been able to print out living tissues. For example, one company has been experimenting with printing out living skin grafts for use in repairing large skin defects caused by burns.