3D Printing is a Game-Changer in Surgery

In 2016, a nine-month-old baby boy in China was found to have a rare heart defect. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Without surgery, doctors estimated that he had only a 20 percent chance of surviving to his first birthday. However, the complexity of the surgery was a risk factor that concerned his doctor. The doctor 3D-printed a full-size model of his tiny heart for the surgery pre-planning. The baby recovered after the surgery and is expected to live with little to no lasting ill effects.

The Seven Revolutions in Healthcare That Will Impact Your Life – Part 2

Healthcare, an unexpected beneficiary of 3D printing

In the summer of 1984, Charles W. “Chuck” Hull patented the “apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography”, marking the birth of 3D printing. This technology has since been adopted across several industries. The healthcare industry was one of the first adopters of 3D printing. The enthusiasm expressed by the healthcare industry, and in particular by surgeons, even surprised Chuck Hull himself.


“To me, some of the medical applications have been the most surprising. I didn’t anticipate that, and as soon as I started working with some of the medical imaging people, it became pretty clear that this was going to work.” – Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Hull, inventor of 3D printing[1]


In the three decades following the invention of 3D printing, it has helped transform healthcare. Thanks to 3D printers, today surgeons have access to on-demand individualized organ models, bones, prosthetics, and medical devices. The medical applications of 3D printing continue to broaden.

3D printing enhances a surgeon’s capabilities

Traditionally, doctors work with two-dimensional X-ray, CT, or MRI images. When pre-planning a complex surgery for a traumatic injury or complex condition, excellent visualization skills are required from the surgeon. It becomes even more difficult to fit the puzzle pieces together when the injuries involve a patient’s face or skull. The adoption of 3D printing can reproduce the anatomical models accurately based on radiological imaging of the patients. These models enable a surgeon to visualize, pre-plan, and practice beforehand. A recent review found that in 82 percent of cases, 3D printed models resulted in better surgical outcomes, such as reduced surgical time, improved medical outcome, and decreased radiation exposure.[2]

Beyond the operation room, 3D-printed anatomical models that replicate the complexity and various pathological conditions are also unique tools for the training of young surgeons.

For hospitals investing in 3D printing solutions, the advantage is a reduction in surgical time, leading to better operation theater utilization and a higher number of surgeries being conducted, along with better patient outcomes in terms of faster recovery time, etc. As Supertrends expert Dr. Atanu Chaudhuri notes, the technology can also help individual hospitals attain leading positions in the field.


“Deploying customized on-demand 3D printing can reduce surgical flow time and its variability (in diagnosis, surgery, and recovery) while improving clinical outcomes.” – Atanu Chaudhuri, Supertrends expert[3]


A new way to produce medical devices and implants

Size is crucial when it comes to medical devices, especially implants. Using a wrong-sized implant can lead to poor outcomes. Mass-produced medical devices often fail to completely meet the complex needs of patients. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, US$36 million is wasted each year due to poor patient outcomes related to hip and knee replacement.[4]


3D printing transforms the manufacturing of medical devices and implants, allowing them to be customized in terms of shape and functions.


One of the leading applications is in orthopaedics and orthopaedic oncology, especially in complex restructuring operations. Skull and facial implants are another areas that demands highly customized implants. In the Netherlands, doctors have replaced the entire top of a 22-year-old woman’s skull with a 3D-printed implant instead of a traditional implant. Doctors found that 3D-printed skull implants were more cosmetically beneficial, and patients often had better brain functions as a result.[5]

With the reduced costs and increased efficiency, 3D printing facilitates a lower-cost approach to making otherwise high-cost items, such as prosthetics. A number of non-profit organizations are using 3D printing to produce parts for people in need. E-NABLE is an example of volunteers creating free 3D-printed prosthetics for children and adults.

Will 3D bioprinting be the answer for organ shortages?

3D printing is already shaking our age-old notions of what can and can’t be made. – Hod Lipson, professor and author

3D bioprinting uses cell-laden bioinks as material, layering them in a manner mimicking natural tissues and organs. The goal of this technology is to restore damaged tissue or organs. Over the past few years, significant advancements have been made in the design and synthesis of bioink and accompanying secondary technologies. Last year, researchers from Australia 3D-printed miniature kidneys using stem cells. Although the 3D-bioprinted kidneys are only the size of a fingernail, they have a similar structure to a real kidney.[6]

Other applications of 3D bioprinting include drug delivery and studying disease mechanisms. Companies are working on 3D-printed tablets with different sizes, shapes, and drug delivery devices to meet personalized needs. In 2015, FDA approved the first 3D printed medication Spiritam.[7]

The impact of 3D printing on healthcare is just beginning

What 3D printing holds for the future of healthcare is a more personalized approach, at a lower cost.

Below are examples of some historical milestones in 3D printing that you can find on the Supertrends Pro App.



What about the future? Feel free to weigh in and give us your predictions on the following three key questions:

  • 3D-printed anatomical models become standard for complex medical surgeries.
  • 3D-printed medical devices and simulations are regularly used in complex surgeries.
  • 3D-bioprinting of tissues and organs is available for regenerative medicine.

Do you think they will happen at some point, and if so, when? Or do you think they will never happen? Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro App to join the discussion.

© 2021 Supertrends



[1] Matthew Whitaker, The history of 3D printing in healthcare, The bulletin, 2014, (96): 7; https://doi.org/10.1308/147363514X13990346756481

[2] Tack P, Victor J, Gemmel P, Annemans L. 3D-printing techniques in a medical setting: a systematic literature review. Biomed Eng Online. 2016;15(1):115. Published 2016 Oct 21. doi:10.1186/s12938-016-0236-4

[3] Chaudhuri, A., Naseraldin, H., Søberg, P.V., Kroll, E. and Librus, M. (2021), “Should hospitals invest in customised on-demand 3D printing for surgeries?”, International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 41 No. 1, pp. 55-62. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJOPM-05-2020-0277

[4] Why size matters when it comes to medical devices, Qmed, Oct 26, 2015, https://www.mddionline.com/why-size-matters-when-it-comes-medical-devices

[5] Thomson Lain, The Register, March 29, 2014, https://www.theregister.com/2014/03/29/dutch_doctors_replace_womans_skull_with_3dprinted_plastic_copy/

[6] Aussie research on bioprinting mini kidney raises hope for lab-grown transplantation, Xinhua, November 24, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-11/24/c_139540203.htm

[7] Dey, M., Ozbolat, I.T. 3D bioprinting of cells, tissues and organs. Sci Rep 10, 14023 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70086-y

Future of Healthcare, 3D Printing


Jiqing Hansen

Having worked passionately for 15+ years in Medicine, I felt that I yearned to do something a little bit different, something that satisfies my curiosity and creativity, maybe something that helps to inform me and others what our world will look like in the future. That's when I took on the challenge of being the editor & expert relationship manager at Supertrends. I love the fact that I can still be in touch with my academic background when I am trying to understand and reach out to the experts in the most exciting fields. I also love the diverse and enthusiastic team at Supertrends. The best of all, I get to have a peek into the future, and I am at the position of helping many others to get the opportunity to look into the future.

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