Evaluation Background: Medical 3D Printing Services

March 17, 2021 | Evaluations & Guidance


Here's background for our Evaluations of 3D printing services for creating patient-specific anatomical models, outlining the key considerations for making wise purchasing decisions. Learn how the technology is used and what factors we test for, and review our ratings of 3D printing services.

3D printing is a process in which a digital model is converted to a physical object. Typically, computer-aided design (CAD) is used to create the digital model of what is to be built. After the digital model is created, software referred to as slicing or slicer software is used to define how the object is to be built and to create instructions for the 3D printer. 3D printers build objects by applying successive layers of materials on a build platform. Different 3D printing technologies apply those layers using different methods. The slicing software defines each individual layer and instructs the printer how to apply it.

One of the most common medical uses of 3D printing is the creation of patient-specific models of designated anatomical regions designed from patient imaging data, typically from CT or MRI. To develop a design based on patient imaging, specialized software, referred to as segmentation software, is used to identify and isolate important anatomy shown on the imaging data and then use that information to create the digital model of what is to be 3D printed. Segmentation is a critical step to ensure that the finished 3D-printed device adequately matches the intended anatomy.

Surgical applications of 3D printing include building patient-specific implants and surgical guides and patient-specific anatomical models for procedure planning and education. 3D printing is used in orthopedics, cranio-maxillofacial (CMF) surgery, neurosurgery, cardiovascular surgery, general surgery, otorhinolaryngology (ENT) head and neck surgery, oncology, pediatric surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, colorectal surgery, thoracic surgery, and urology.

Patient-specific 3D-printed anatomical models have been in use since the 1990s. Advanced 3D printing techniques can be used to create models containing multiple colors for understanding complex anatomy and pathology, transparent areas for visualizing internal anatomy, high resolution for surgical planning, and tactile characteristics mimicking human anatomy for surgical rehearsals and simulations.

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