Jaw-dropping printing technology on the horizon

By Alex Wiles, Features Staff Writer

We now live in a world where replacing a bone is nearly as easy as hitting “print.” Well, there is a bit more to the process than a single click, but this is essentially how a woman in the Netherlands received her replacement jaw. The jaw’s design was sent to Belgian company Layerwise, where they loaded the design into one of their 3D printers and after a few hours, had a titanium jaw.

How do these printers work? It actually isn’t that complicated.  The 3D design is sliced into 2D layers, kind of like a topographical map, which the printer uses to build up the jaw from nothing. A laser melts titanium powder in the shape of a 2D layer on top of the previous layer. After a few hours and thousands of layers, the product is complete.

You can check out a video of the process in this video uploaded to YouTube by LayerWise:

The flexibility and precision of this process is what makes it so fit for creating replacement bones. This process is actually the reason that this is the first-ever complete jaw replacement. The jawbone is complex and requires precise design to make sure it will fit the patient and will be usable. Traditional forging methods simply cannot provide this precision and accuracy and are much less efficient.

“You can build parts that you can’t create using any other technique,” Ruben Wauthle, LayerWise’s medical applications engineer, said to the BBC. “For example you can print porous titanium structures which allow bone in-growth and allow a better fixation of the implant, giving it a longer lifetime.”

3D printers are becoming a more common method of producing parts in all industries. Tech enthusiasts are even starting to bring mini 3D printers into the consumer’s home. A recent Kick Starter project titled “Printrbot” demonstrates the affordability, size and growing demand of consumer-grade 3D printers. This video shows the printer in action.

While these consumer 3D printers are not fit for making replacement bones yet, but they do provide the opportunity for normal people to simply download and print replacement parts for household items and other small objects.

Vivek Wadhwa, a prominent professor and journalist, predicts–via writing and tweeting (@wadwha)–that 3D printers, combined with other technologies, are going to create a manufacturing revolution.

“These manufacturing machines are evolving rapidly, dropping in price and increasing in capabilities,” Wadhwa wrote in a blog post about manufacturing. “By the mid-2020s, we will develop advanced nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing which will allow us to program molecules inexpensively, with atomic precision.”

It is safe to say, we can expect to see 3D printers playing bigger and bigger role in our lives over the coming years in ways that can aptly be described as jaw-dropping.

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