A team of researchers at Northeastern University have developed a new 3-D printing technology and are hoping to be able to apply it to patient-specific products.
The end of 2015 has brought about a number of new technologies and the promise of change—particularly for the potential implementation of 3-D printing technology in patients.
A team of researchers at Northeastern University have developed a new 3-D printing technology. This technology, which uses magnetic fields to shape composite materials (mixes of plastics and ceramics), has the potential to be applicable for patient-specific products.
“There is a lot in store for the future in fiber-reinforced polymer composites,” says Randall Erb Assistant Professor at Northeastern University. “Composites are strong and light weight, and the 3-D printing enables the patient-specific process.”
However, there is still a considerable amount of research ahead of the team.
“These component materials are relatively hard to print because you need orientation of the microstructure,” explains Erb. “Our goal is to learn how to print composite materials with control of fiber orientation.”
With a goal to eventually make person-specific devices using their 3-D printing technology, they have found other potential outlets for this technology as well.
“Up to this point, we have been printing small devices with high strength,” says Erb. “Some of the applications [for the 3-D printing technology] are for the Department of Defense, such as soldier-specific devices and protection for safety. We also have a lot of ideas about applications for the general public.”
At present, the researchers have been working on the fundamental sciences behind the structure.
“We are not printing medical devices yet,” says Erb. “We just received funding for that and will start looking into its application.”
Thus far, bone implants seem to be one use for patient-specific products made using 3-D printing technology. In addition, there is potential for vaccines to be delivered by a device made by 3-D printing, according to Erb.
“We can make our 3-D printing materials bio-compatible. We can print them and then sterilize them—the same way you sterilize other plastic components,” says Erb.
With such a potentially-useful technology, many industry experts are eager to begin its application.
“There are demands by the medical industry to apply 3-D printing,” says Erb. “The NIH has made a call for how to apply 3-D printing to patient-specific healthcare.
“It makes a lot of sense: if you want a specific geometry, you can’t make it through traditional methods because it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“For anything that is person-specific, 3-D printing is really the only economic answer.”
However, this technology’s potential economic impact may also be paired with a distinct disadvantage.
“In order to 3-D print, you need to import a geometry; which means you need technician that is capable of imaging the patient,” says Erb. “You need to know the exact geometry of a patient.
“Down the road, the technology will likely be advanced enough that a short training could teach doctors or nurses how to run the analysis, generate the geometry, and send it to the 3-D printer without need for high-level technicians,” Erb explains.
In the meantime, Erb and the researchers at the university have their own goal in mind.
“Our interest is in understanding how the microstructure relates to the properties of the printed parts,” says Erb. “To put in perspective, what our current interests and findings are about is how microstructure relates to macroscopic properties.”
Lead Image Photo Credit: Northeastern University.