At Autodesk, Makers Explore how 3-D Printing is Transforming Medicine

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An assortment of 3-D printed objects at Autodesk (Christina Farr / KQED)

Three-dimensional printers are now ubiquitous in the medical industry, and are used for everything from knee implants to prosthetics.

If you're not familiar with 3-D printing, imagine an inkjet printer that builds up a three-dimensional object in layers by printing over the same surface over and over again. Proponents say 3-D printing and other rapid prototyping techniques will have a democratizing effect on manufacturing, making it easier for us to make highly intricate and delicate objects.

How will doctors and medical researchers use this technology in the future? Last month, I took up Autodesk on their offer to visit their new workshop at San Francisco's Pier 9 to discuss the possibilities for 3-D printing, with a focus on new health applications.

Maker advocate
Maker advocate Jesse Harrington Au holding a 3-D printed skull of a saber tooth tiger (Christina Farr/ KQED )

The space can best be described as a geek paradise. It is stacked to the brim with designs in various stages of completion. The highlights include a 3-D printed saber tooth tiger's skull, a cocktail-making machine and a 3-D printed record player.

During my tour, I met some of the artists-in-residence who live and work at Autodesk for about four months. A small percentage of these "artists" develop 3-D printed medical products.


As a 2014 New Yorker article put it, the medical and dental industries are near-constantly finding new uses for 3-D printing:

"The things we are choosing to print are becoming ever more personal and intimate. This appears to be even more true in medicine: increasingly, what we are printing is ourselves."

Health care: An Early Adopter

Aerospace engineer Zachary Howard is now developing medical applications
Aerospace engineer Zachary Howard is now developing medical applications (Christina Farr / KQED)

Zachary Howard, one of the artists I met at Autodesk, was in the midst of developing a 3-D printed, inexpensive eye exam. The product was inspired by his grandmother, who suffers from cataracts.

The research was still in the early stages, but Howard said he hoped to reconstruct the back of the eye using "a bunch of images and layering."

3-D printing can be used to develop highly intricate and realistic models that fit both inside and outside the body. Surgeons routinely use these models to practice on before an actual surgery.

"Health care is an early adopter of this technology," added Jesse Harrington Au, a self-described "maker advocate" at Autodesk.

[Skip to the bottom for a short video of Harrington Au explaining how engineers 3-D printed muscle tissue from a horse.]

Anyone who wears hearing aids or has straightened their teeth by wearing Invisalign's custom orthodontic braces has already experienced 3-D printing technology at work. Some of the more recent developments include 3-D printed embryonic stem cells and blood vessels.

A MakerBot Replicator 2, a popular desktop 3-D printer
Office workers surround a MakerBot Replicator 2, a popular desktop 3-D printer (Christina Farr, KQED )

Harrington Au said he's seeing two big trends at the intersection of medicine and 3-D printing:

Researchers are increasingly using 3-D printing to develop life-saving medical devices, particularly for patients with rare diseases. In 2013, doctors saved the first person using a 3-D printed medical device: A six-month-old infant with severe breathing difficulties.

And makers are hacking their own 3D-printed medical products at home. All over the Internet, you'll find stories from patients who 3-D print their own prosthetics for $50 or less. At Autodesk, one artist is working on a 3-D printed prosthetic hand. Another former artist in residence, Carlo Quinonez, is 3D-printing thermal chambers, which are incubators to keep living organisms alive during observation.

"I even know a maker who developed his own filling," said Harrington Au.