With humans now living longer than ever, the pressure placed on the medical industry is at an all-time high. In the UK, the NHS uses and replaces hundreds of thousands of hip, knee and spinal implants each year. The average lifespan of an implant is just 15 years which means as the number of people requiring medical assistance increases and the funds available to sustain this increase remain stagnant, the NHS must look to innovate and make the most of modern technologies.
While the British government has recently pledged an extra £20bn to the NHS, there is a growing interest among the industry of finding alternative methods that could save money for the healthcare system, one of those is the advancements of 3D printing. 3D printed metal implants would have the capabilities to last much longer than regular implants, potentially saving the medical industry and the taxpayer millions of pounds a year.
Because the bone is a living material, it remodels itself whenever stress is placed upon it – which is why our skeletons are efficient structures with material only placed where it is needed. When using a standard implant, pressure is distributed to that implant meaning the surrounding bone will remodel itself, resulting in a loosening of the implant, eventually leaving the implant loose and faulty.
A 3D printed implant, meanwhile, has a surface that ensures a smooth load transfer between the device and the skeleton due to the 3D porous surface containing living bone. And because the porous surface has a lower modulus than a standard implant, the stiffness difference between the metal and bone is therefore reduced significantly. When a customised implant is fitted, the bone remodels itself to that particular implant.
The manufacturing of 3D implants involves information being created using a CAD model before being built by a machine using additive manufacturing. The data from the CAD model is taken via various software interfaces and transferred into the build preparation software, before being prepared for the machine and then manufactured. During this process, large amounts of data are collected from sensors on the 3d print machine to ensure precision and that the implant doesn’t then need to be altered. And once this is done for the first time, the same model can be 3D printed numerous times.
Because current implants wear out at around the 15-year mark, doctors tend to try and delay the procedure for as long as possible to ensure the implant is able to be altered as the problem exacerbates. 3D printing will allow surgeons to operate earlier, giving the patient longer to enjoy their new implant and ensure they aren’t suffering with the pain longer than they really need to.
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