“3-D printing is extremely beneficial for prototyping, because it is fast and inexpensive …”
Eric Van Middendorp
Eric Van Middendorp, Alissa Smith
3-D printed heart
3-D printed probe holder
With the thinnest layer by layer, filament by filament, printers producing results in three dimensions seem like something out of science fiction. Yet it’s been happening since 1984, when Charles Hull invented a printing process that could create a tangible object from digital data. By 2002, the first functioning kidney was produced on a 3-D printer, leading to more research into printing organs and human tissue. 3-D printing has continued to advance, and the technology is enabling breathtaking possibilities in health care.
“We’ve had a couple of 3-D printers at Spectrum Health for about three years,” says Eric Van Middendorp, MSE, biomedical engineer, at Spectrum Health Innovations. “And we would love to expand our capabilities as demand grows.”
Demand is growing. Health care uses for 3-D printing include anatomical models that can be used for more precise diagnoses, surgical planning or practice sessions, and for educational purposes for medical students, residents, nurses and other medical professionals.
“At SHI, we have primarily used 3-D printing to create prototypes,” Van Middendorp says. Among those prototypes have been components of an isolation door sensor, an ultrasound probe holder, a dynamic tensioning shoulder brace, an endotracheal tube holder, an external female urinary device, various fixtures to aid with manufacturing, as well as a model of a heart used for surgical planning to aid with LVAD placement and other models.
A discussion about the applications of 3-D printing as used for medical purposes captured the imagination of Robert F. Cuff, MD FACS, assistant professor of surgery, MSU-CHM, and program director for Integrated Vascular Surgery Residency, Spectrum Health-MSU.
“Dr. Cuff and I had a conversation about printing anatomical models,” recalls Van Middendorp. “We decided to make a model as a gift for one of his patients who was also who was also a generous patron of Spectrum Health.”
“We printed a 3-D model of this patient’s aorta and aorto-bifemoral bypass graft as a unique thank-you gift for his generous donation to our new CV Simulation Center,” says Dr. Cuff. “This was possible through the combined efforts of the Congenital Heart Program team who prepared the CT scan images, and SHI, who printed the model, prepped it and painted it for the patient.”
Alissa Smith, Grand Valley State University, engineering graduate assistant, working with SHI, did the detailed work of prepping and painting the prototype for Dr. Cuff.
“Three-dimensional printing is extremely beneficial for prototyping, because it is fast and inexpensive, which is essential for prototyping new products,” Smith says. “We can learn so much more from a physical model than an image. It allows us to fail fast and get to a viable product quicker, therefore improving and streamlining the design process.”
A 3-D model can be printed in hours or in days, depending on the degree of resolution and materials. Printing a model of a heart, for instance, may take three to five days. These kinds of models can be patient-specific, improving surgical efficiency and effectiveness while increasing patient safety and clinician confidence.
“Our main goal in using 3-D printers was to create prototypes, but we are currently working with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to print anatomical models, and demand is growing as we partner with more physicians. Seeing a model and holding it can help a patient understand an upcoming procedure during a consultation. A surgeon can practice a procedure on the model. There are applications for residential training. The possibilities are endless. ”