(Additive) Manufacturing for Humanity: How 3D printing is saving lives

By Mr. Santhosh Nagaraju, Senior Technical Specialist- Virtual Manufacturing and Costing, Hexagon & Santosh Ner, Senior Manager, BD, Virtual Manufacturing and Costing, Hexagon


Sohail Akhter (not his real name), 50, from Bangladesh, was suffering from a rare and complex form of cancer, where a malignant tumour had destroyed his sternum (chest bone), along with 8 ribs on both his left and right. This deadly tumour was so large it also affected his pericardium, which is the outer layer of his heart and lungs.

Desperate, he searched far and wide for a doctor and hospital who could treat him, only to be let down because no one dared to operate on him. If the cancer were to be removed, there was no way to repair the damage or indeed, replace his sternum and ribs– both which were essential for him to breathe normally. Without them, he would be dependent on mechanical ventilation for the rest of his life.

Finally, however, he went to India, where at a renowned hospital, the oncology team there found the solution. They would remove the tumour entirely and replace Sohail’s sternum and ribs with a custom-built 3D-printed implant made of titanium.

Custom-made before the surgery with CT scan images; a replica of his original chest bone and ribs were fixed with a new drilling technique and titanium wire. The replica, made with a revolutionary ‘honeycomb’ technology out of titanium powder and liquid titanium, is strong, durable, lightweight, and has lower risk of rejection from the body.

Today, Sohail has recovered well and is able to breathe, eat and move normally after physiotherapy.

Indeed, manufacturing has come a long way since the days of the factory line. Today, manufacturing is building the future, and additive manufacturing (AM), or what we more commonly call as 3D printing, is fast becoming the most exciting development in the sector.

With endless potential uses in the medical, aerospace, and automotive industries, amongst many more, Sohail’s story is but one of them.

3D printing in healthcare

One such case study of Hexagon’s end-to-end AM solutions for healthcare is with a renowned hospital in Bangalore, in the 3D printing of custom joint replacements and implants.

Today, many standard joint replacements repeatedly fail to last and provide comfort to the patient, since everyone’s body is different and there is no one-size-fits-all. With AM, custom-made 3D printed implants give more flexibility, comfort, and life to patients.

While this is one of many potential uses of AM in healthcare; AM can also be used to manufacture highly-specialised, highly-complex medical equipment with unerring accuracy. Not only that, doctors and surgeons can use 3D printed prototypes of patients’ organs, tissues or bodies for research, analysis, prototyping or even surgery preparation, thus enabling 3D visualisation for improving accuracy and reducing error.

In India, doctors are creating 3D models of patients’ organs or bodies from CT scan data to prepare and more accurately perform complicated surgeries. In one instance, doctors created a 3D model of a patient’s pelvis for a particularly tricky hip replacement procedure. The model was created in a matter of days and it enabled the surgeon to plan well ahead and be better prepared for performing the surgery, thus cutting down surgery time and errors.

Another use of 3D printing in healthcare is in new surgical tools and techniques. New biocompatible medical 3D printing materials have now allowed newer developments in the surgery experience. 3D printing is used to print sterilizable fixation trays, contouring templates, and implant sizing models, helping surgeons reduce time and increase the accuracy of complex procedures.

3D printing is also showing immense potential in manufacturing of affordable and customised prostheses, corrective insoles, and orthoses– which currently are incredibly expensive and take a long time to produce.

In terms of medical research, 3D printing can also be used to quickly and affordably manufacture working prototypes for new inventions. In fact, experts are saying that 3D printing is now becoming a synonym for rapid prototyping– which is easy to use and relatively low-cost, thus revolutionising product development.

It has also been reported that the majority of some of the top medical device companies in the world have been using 3D printing to create accurate prototypes of medical devices, as well as jigs and fixtures.

AM leads the charge into the future of manufacturing

To be sure, additive manufacturing is gaining incredible traction.

In 2019, an Ernst & Young report found that AM has attracted such exposure that almost two-thirds (65%) of businesses they carried their survey with have now tried applying this technology in their business — nearly triple since 2016.

Valued at more than USD 7 billion as of 2017, the AM industry is expected to reach USD 35.6 billion by 2023 worldwide, with expenditure on AM crossing USD 3.6 billion in 2021 in the Asia-Pacific region.

3D printing in healthcare, in particular, is valued at USD 1,036.58 million in 2020; is projected to reach USD 5,846.74 million by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 20% from 2021 to 2030.

The industry is already experiencing productivity gains that can be achieved with advanced technologies in the AM space. For example, Hexagon’s new Generative Design Solution cuts AM design processes by up to 80 percent-– as the MSC Apex Generative Design produces stress-optimised, 3D printable designs which reduce design cycles from days to hours.

In fact, productivity improvements may be up to 80 percent compared to classic topology optimisation. The software produces a part design that is ready for additive manufacturing (DfAM) in a few hours – a fraction of the time usually required – making reliable additive manufacturing more cost-efficient and accessible.

In MSC Apex Generative Design, the designer only needs to specify the boundary conditions and design objectives. Multiple lightweight design candidates, that are exploring the possibilities of the design space, will be produced, providing optimal stress distribution and minimise weight.

This enhances the creative process, so designers have more time to optimise the product’s concept and integrate additional features that add value. The software’s intelligent smoothing technology ensures that every candidate has a perfect finish that is ready for print.

In addition, solutions in advanced simulation processes continue to aid to the growth of AM. For example, Simufact Additive is a powerful and scalable software solution for the simulation of metal-based additive manufacturing processes, enabling smooth metal 3D printing with high dimensional accuracy and quality.

There is also Digimat-AM, which is a solution of Digimat Software that simulates the printing process and helps printer manufacturers and end-users identify manufacturing issues, while optimising printing parameters for productivity and precision. This way, Hexagon provides an end-to-end solution for OEM, Service Bureau and Research Institutes with its hardware and software solutions.  

Without a doubt, AM is showing great promise in healthcare innovation and is certain to revolutionise the medical industry – all geared towards the better well-being of humankind.

About the author:

By Mr. Santhosh Nagaraju, Senior Technical Specialist- Virtual Manufacturing and Costing, Hexagon & Santosh Ner, Senior Manager, BD, Virtual Manufacturing and Costing, Hexagon