3D printing in healthcare is becoming, if not quite mainstream, something common enough that most people have at least heard of 3D printed prosthetics, or implants, or surgical models. The technology is being used by both large corporations and small clinics, but it’s the large corporations that can really play a role in bringing it into the mainstream quickly. There are few medical corporations larger or more influential than Johnson & Johnson, and the company has embraced 3D printing in a big way, entering into collaborations with HP and other companies to develop advanced applications for 3D printing in the biomedical sphere.
Sam Onukuri, the Head of Johnson & Johnson’s 3D Printing Center of Excellence, has a personal stake in developing customized 3D printed medicine. A while ago, his mother-in-law had both of her knees replaced.
said. “Through 3D printing technology, we can print exactly what the patient needs to replace the degraded bone. The implant can be made based on a CT or MRI scan from thousands of miles away.”“If there was a customized 3D-printed knee available then, I believe her pain and the recuperation time could have been reduced,” he
Every person’s body is different, but medical implants don’t often reflect that. Instead, doctors who are replacing a knee, for example, have to choose between only a few different implant sizes to decide which one will best fit their patient. Frequently, none of those sizes fits properly, causing the patient more discomfort and prolonging healing time.
“Physicians make every effort to find the implant that fits best,” said Onukuri. “But it’s never a perfect match, and the same is true for the tools. As a result, the surgery takes longer — and so can healing and recovery — and the fit may not be perfect.”
With 3D printing, however, physicians can take scans of their patients’ individual anatomy and have an implant 3D printed that precisely matches that anatomy, allowing for faster surgery, faster healing and reduced pain. The complex surgical tools needed for the surgery can be customized and 3D printed, too.
Onukuri discussed 3D printed medicine at the recent TCT Show in Birmingham. In his talk, entitled “The Power of 3D Printing: How This Technology is Blazing New Medical Frontiers,” he discussed Johnson & Johnson’s vision of the future of 3D printing in medicine as well as the pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer uses of the technology.
Change can be slow to come to a large company like Johnson & Johnson, said Onukuri, but the company is moving ahead with help from several partners. In addition to its collaborations with HP and others, recently Johnson & Johnson has been working with GE Healthcare in its advanced manufacturing lab. The lab is stocked with 3D printers, robots and other advanced technology, which Onukuri and Joseph Sendra, Global Vice President for Manufacturing, Engineering and Technology at Johnson & Johnson, see as opportunities for advancement and collaboration.
“We feel 3D printing / additive manufacturing will really help in the next years to come in helping our customers,” he said in his presentation. “We touch almost one billion customers every day; our supply chain is very complex…We are slowly changing how we manufacture products. Personalized products are a big value for us. We value manufacturing efficiency, tooling, and fixtures; the most important thing is innovation in design. From an end-to-end perspective, this will be a lower-cost technology.”
Johnson & Johnson is investigating the possibilities of bioprinting, as well as the medical applications of 3D printing in metals, polymers, ceramics and electronics. Change may not be as fast as people like Onukuri and Sendra would like it to be, thanks to regulatory issues, but it is happening, and when change comes to huge companies like Johnson & Johnson and GE, it affects billions, like Onukuri said. Now that personalized medicine is an option, it’s hard to imagine going back to older ways, and it won’t likely be too long before customized implants are the norm rather than newsworthy.
“Design for additive manufacturing is different than design for traditional manufacturing,” said Sendra. “It gives you the ability to consider many more solutions than you had before. But every engineer can’t think that way, and we have to teach them that there’s a difference. They need to look at the problem from a new point of view.”
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