We’ve all been told that 3D printing will change our life for the better, but it might also save it – or at least help us get better faster, have safer operations and be more comfortable. The use of 3D printing by the NHS and private health companies is growing as more areas of medicine find ways to produce replacement body parts and – in the future – perhaps even full organs. And it’s helping doctors to get better at what they do too.

At the 3DPrintshow in London over the weekend, we saw a host of groundbreaking medical tech under the banner of the 3D Printed Hospital. Running throughout all of the projects was the core concept that the personalised nature of what comes out of 3D printers can produce parts that are an exact match to what you have (or should have or still have). This makes it safer, better and sometimes even cheaper too.

The most common medical issue addressed by the objects on show was the 3D-printed cast for broken bones called Cortex (below). Each cast is custom designed to match the limb it’s protecting – and to support the break and any areas of stress dependent on it – while being open to allow ventilation, scratching of itches and washing (the main irritations with traditional casts). It can also be recycled into more casts. Created as a prototype by students, it has just been awarded £10,000 as a runner-up at this year's James Dyson Prize.

 

Another relatively simple example of this shown to us were some 3D printed bones. Normally, when a surgeon has to replace a bone (or part of a bone), they get a prosthetic part that is approximately the right size for someone your shape, open you up, stick it in and then have to essentially whittle it down to the right shape while you’re still on the operating table. Using a 3D printed bone that’s matched to your measurements – such as to the bone its replacing – makes the operation quicker and safer.

One technology that’s being developed alongside this is using starch to bind bone fragments together instead of a metal plate – for example after a bad break or where part of the bone has been replaced. The starch dissolves naturally over time, so there’s no need for a second operation to remove it as with a metal plate. Again there’s a definite upside here, including a lower chance of dying or other nasty complications.

A small British company called Fripp Design was showing some interesting prosthetic technologies based on 3D printed soft silicon. They showed a 3D-printed prosthetic eye that they said cost around £20 to produce – compared to thousands for a traditional eye. It also took hours to produce, rather than weeks – as it was printed based on the patient’s other eye rather than being hand-painted.

The company was also showing 3D-printed facial prostheses of noses and ears – which can scale up to even larger sections to fill in the faces of people such as the man who’s face was scanned below, who’d lost a large part of his face to cancer. Again these take a couple of days to create from silicone and starch that match the patient’s skin colour precisely.

Fripp says it has the patent on 3D printed silicon (below) and is actively looking to sell it on to a bigger medical firm.

Possibly the most heartwarming story in the Hospital of the impact of 3D-printed medical tech is that of three-year-old Emma, who suffers from a congenital condition called Arthrogryposis that affects her joints and muscles.

Emma uses an exoskeleton called WREX that uses parts 3D printed to the exact dimensons of her limbs helps her to perform daily tasks such as feeding herself, drawing, and playing games with friends. Without the WREX, Emma can't lift her hands up to her face or use them to handle items in front of her. As you can see from the video below – which was filmed when Emma was two – now she can make use of her arms almost like a able-bodied child, and the WREX components are reprinted to grow with her as she develops.

Unfortunately only a small part of the WREX was on show – a full set can be seen in the Science Musuem’s current exhibition 3D: Printing The Future.

The use of 3D printing by medical professionals isn’t just about creating things to go in or on your body. 3D-printed accurate replicas of the bone structures of individual patients can help surgeons plan and practice particularly complex operations. We were shown a 3D printed replica of the fused skulls of conjoined twins, which not only let the surgical team charged with separating them better work out how to separate them – but print exactly matched skullcaps to fit onto each of the twins after separation.

The final medical tech we saw was a project by Alan Faulkner-Jones, a PhD student at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. He's working on a 3D printer – a reengineered Makerbot – that produces stem cells and miniature organs to allow drug testing without using animals. It’s the beginning of research that could lead to one day full-sized organs being created.

Our overall impression from the 3D Hospital is that the potential of 3D printing is huge. In the short term it's impact will mainly be creating personalised items and devices that make simple but powerful impacts to people's daily lives – but in the future it could even eridicate animal testing.