17 Nov 2015
Innovative Medical Applications Dominate 3D Printing Asia Event
- Photo: Medical miracle: a 3D-printed anatomical spinal model.
- Photo: A 3D-printed acetabular cup.
- Photo: A skull model rendered in 3D.
- Photo: Multidimensional: A Buddha icon.
- Photo: Manufactured additively: A Chinese dragon throne.
- Photo: Shanghai Union 3D Technology’s popular stand.
- Photo: Dentures three-dimensionally printed.
- Photo: Visitors scan the scanner.
- Photo: 3Discussions: Attendees questions answered.
Rising demand for precision prosthetics across the mainland has proved a huge opportunity for pioneers in the 3D printing sector, with a real focus on the medical sector emerging for many of the technology companies in the market.
This year's 3D Printing Asia event highlighted the rapid growth in medical applications for the technology. This was largely a consequence of the technology's facility to produce precision, one-off prosthetics, each perfectly customised to the individual patient's unique anatomy.
Medical applications aside, the event showcased a wide variety of 3D printing equipment, as well as associated modelling and scanning innovations. The exhibits on offer ranged from industrial grade equipment to home-use 3D printers, something that has become increasingly affordable on a hobbyist's budget. A varied seminar programme also accompanied the exhibition.
Overall, though, it was the medical applications of the technology that proved the biggest draw. Of late, the demand for customised medical supplies has risen significantly, with 3D printing seen as uniquely suited to meeting this requirement.
The Medical Dimension
In essence, 3D printing offers a variety of benefits over other forms of low-volume manufacturing, including precise printing quality, speedy processing and the capability of rendering complex objects that are impossible to reproduce by other means. Compared with traditional manufacturing techniques, 3D printing ensures consistent quality, as well as cost savings in terms of time, resources and manpower.
One Guangdong-based technology firm, Xindaya, attracted considerable attention with its 3D-rendered specialist cutting tool for hip arthroplasty, complete with sidestem, surgical guide plate, dental crown and acetabular cup. The company's acetabular cup is delicately produced with a dense interspace on the surface. When an implant is grafted to a human bone, the living bone can then grow into the metal pores on the manufactured piece's surface, providing firm integration with the metal implant.
According to Song Changhui, Assistant to Xindaya's General Manager, 3D printing can precisely reconstruct the acetabular bone far more effectively than conventional techniques. At present, only acetabular cups made with cobalt-chrome-molybdenum alloy and titanium alloy can be implanted into the human body. According to Song, titanium alloy comes priced at around Rmb4,000 per kg, with cobalt-chrome-molybdenum alloy at around Rmb2,000 per kg. Printing an acetabular cup requires about 0.1-0.3 kg of the materials.
One of the company's other exhibits – a surgical guide plate pre-3D-printed with two drilling bits – was particularly eye-catching. Explaining its application, Song said 3D-printed surgical guide plates allow doctors to pre-set the drilling positions, while also enabling them to rehearse similar operations on 3D-printed products. As well as proving highly convenient for surgeons, the technique is also said to enjoy a high success rate.
A range of 3D-printed medical supplies, courtesy of Shanghai Union 3D Technology, was also on show at the event. Qiu Xinxin, the company's Head of Marketing for the southern region, said 3D printing now had extensive applications in a number of medical fields, including oral and maxillofacial surgery, neurological surgery and spinal surgery. Nowadays, doctors can directly use 3D printing technology to reconstruct the patients' spines with greater precision. The printed spines are three-dimensional and accurately rendered, helping overcome the shortcomings of the overlapping bone architecture images typically produced by 2D ultrasound scans. As a result, doctors can accurately analyse the patients' spinal structures, while the patients better understand the causes of their diseases, helping to boost diagnostic accuracy.
Medics can also further study the 3D-printed artificial spines as the basis for choosing the most suitable surgery option. All these refinements significantly boost the accuracy and safety of any surgery, ensuring a better post-operative prognosis.
Customised Medical Supplies
Qiu sees 3D printing technology as now embarking on a period of rapid expansion. Shanghai Union is currently capable of printing a wide array of medical supplies with applications in a variety of fields, including surgical guide plates, dental crowns, cranial prosthesis, orthodontics and spinal damage prosthetics.
The company lays claim to being one of the first mainland businesses to specialise in the application of 3D printing technology. At present, the company uses mostly soft materials for 3D printing, substances that are ideal for the manufacture of ‘invisible' braces. According to Qiu, orthodontics is in demand on the mainland, with many people opting for invisible braces as a means of improving their appearance.
Due to the varied requirements of different patients, customised invisible braces are an increasingly popular form of treatment. Throughout a course of orthodontic remedies, any movement of the teeth may create the need for periodic adjustments to achieve the desired outcome. Traditional mass-production techniques can no longer satisfy such market demands, creating a real demand for 3D-printed items.
Xindaya is also keen to capitalise on 3D printing as a means of producing orthodontic medical products. According to Song, its metal 3D printing technology uses a selective laser melting process, taking just two hours to print 30 artificial teeth.
In line with the differences in individual teeth, Xindaya's facilities are able to simultaneously print artificial teeth in a variety of shapes. This sees the company capable of producing a range of dental solutions, including crowns, bridges, partial dentures and tooth implants.
Estimating the cost, Song said 3D printers with a product printing size of 250mm width and length would cost about Rmb5 million in many overseas territories. In China, however, the cost is only about Rmb2.58 million. By comparison, Xindaya's 3D printer, with a product print area of 50mm x 50mm, comes priced at about Rmb800,000. Compared with its overseas counterparts, the company's equipment may not perform as well in terms of consistency, but its print quality is said to have already reached international standards.
High Speed Scanning Equipment
One 3D scanner displayed at the exhibition offered a number of visitors the opportunity to try it for themselves. After being scanned, a 3D human body image was typically reproduced on the computer screen in just a few seconds. The machine in question was the ESUN 3D+ Human Body Scanner, the latest innovation from Shenzhen ESUN Display.
According to ESUN's Chief Engineer, Wang Haifeng, the system has an extremely high scanning speed, capable of completing 360 degree scanning within just two seconds. The system can even recreate the clothing and skin colour of the scanned body. Explaining its applications, Wang said the equipment was mostly used by clothing manufacturers when taking tailoring measurements.
In other areas of use, a number of 3D studios are using laser engraving technology to provide 3D image storage service. This allows the printing of 3D family photos or wedding photos, with these seen as having a greater visual impact than traditional 2D images.
In the medical field, the 3D scanner has potential applications in the field of cosmetic surgery. Wang said, as disputes can easily arise as a result of such treatments, the use of the ESUN system allows for before and after images to be saved and compared. This inevitably helps arbitrate issues related to the success of any given treatment.
The scanner is sold both domestically as well as overseas, with a number already exported to the US and Europe. Subject to different specifications and models, the units sell for between Rmb450,000 and Rmb650,000.
This year also saw Hangzhou Shining 3D Tech Co Ltd exhibiting its compact 3D printers, complete with three apertures for easy monitoring. Shanghai Consu Metal Materials, meanwhile, showcased a range of 3D printers that provide one-stop services from design to production. Over on the Shenzhen Rebirth 3D Technology stand, the company was highlighting its range of 3D printing raw materials, including PLA, ABS, wood filament and nylon.
The 3D Printing Asia 2015 expo took place in mid-September at the China Import and Export Fair Complex in Guangzhou.
Jian Wei, Special Correspondent, Guangzhou