Over the past two decades, 3-D printing has grown from a niche technology to a multibillion-dollar industry. The manufacturing process was developed in the 1980s as a way to produce small volumes of scale models but has since expanded to include the manufacturing of medical devices and implants for surgical and clinical use. The process, also known as additive manufacturing, uses computer models to build three-dimensional objects by printing materials like plastic, polymers, metals and powders in layers.
Companies like Beltone, a Glenview-based hearing-aid maker, Kalamazoo, MI-based Stryker ($SYK) and Minneapolis-based Medtronic ($MDT) are cashing in on the technology to create innovative hearing aid, orthopedic and cardiovascular products, while other operations like San Diego-based Organovo ($ONVO) are churning out 3-D printed organs and tissue that could be used in implants and clinical testing.
But implants and organs are only part of the 3-D printing equation, as “bioprinting” also holds sizable potential in the field of medical diagnostics and drug testing. Earlier this year, U.S. and Chinese researchers created a realistic 3-D model of a cancerous tumor for testing purposes, and Harvard’s Wyss Institute unveiled their “bone-marrow-on-a-chip” technology for drug testing. The device mimics live bone marrow and could provide a more accurate alternative to animal testing.
Companies could face significant cost and regulatory hurdles moving forward, but many devicemakers and research outfits have already charted significant progress in 3-D printing.