“Customized, printed orthopedic implants could be the future. In the meantime, the new manufacturing method is helping companies cut costs.”
Orthopedic surgeons are relying more and more on 3-D printing to build replacements for their patients’ defective or worn out bones. This year surgeons around the world will implant tens of thousands of 3-D printed replacements parts for hips, knees, ankles, parts of the spine, and even sections of the skull. The first few 3-D printed implants tailored specifically to an individual’s anatomy may hint at a future in which customized bone replacements are commonplace. Printed parts represent only a small fraction of the overall market for orthopedic implants, but for two important reasons that share could grow quickly in the coming years. First, an aging population is getting more joint replacement operations. The number of annual hip replacements in the U.S. doubled between 2000 and 2010. Second, in recent years engineers have gotten much better at using additive manufacturing technology—as 3-D printing is also called—to make titanium implants. Leading orthopedic implant makers are investing substantially in the development of the technology; earlier this year Stryker announced plans to build a $400 million additive manufacturing facility. Companies hope to cut costs by simplifying the production process for these implants, which are often geometrically complicated assemblies of multiple metal pieces. Building them layer by layer allows companies to consolidate many pieces into one, and save material that would be wasted in traditional subtractive manufacturing processes like forging and casting But perhaps the biggest potential benefit is the ability to design implants that are specific to an individual patient’s body, by using data from magnetic resonance imaging or computerized tomography scans. In the U.S., a few printed, custom implants have already received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration, including a total knee replacement and a craniofacial plate. It’s still very early days for custom implants. The medical value of custom implants could be “tremendous,” says Jason Koh, an orthopedic surgeon at NorthShore University Health System and director of the NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute.