The 3D Printing Health Revolution

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A recent Gartner report states that by 2019, 10% of people in the developed world will be living with 3D-printed items that are on (or in) their bodies. Such a significant proportion shows the sheer speed at which the 3D-printing market is set to develop within just three years. Of course, it also raises a burning question: what technology area within 3D-printing will grow so much that it is able to drive such a high level of adoption over the short term? By using information that is contained within intellectual property, the answer to this question becomes increasingly clear.

Pinpoint areas of growth

For example, a broad search of 3D printing terminologies reveals the market areas in which the technology is having an influence on innovation taking place. Here’s a quick overview of what an initial search uncovers:

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Source: PatSnap Insights

Although the top technology area here, ‘Joining and shaping of plastics,’ is a rather generic, horizontal term, we can see from the technologies sitting in second and third position that the medical and dental fields are a particularly prominent driver of innovation. In fact, when we also break down the patents within B29C (shaping or joining of plastics), it reveals that many of these patents overlap with the medical and dental category, i.e. they feature in both IPC categories.

One example of this is the recently published patent “Use of additive manufacturing processes in the manufacture of custom wearable and/or implantable medical devices” (US9469075). It appeared on 18 October and is typical of the technologies currently being pursued in this area, with the emphasis on customization. As described above, this patent falls into both the shaping and joining category, as well as A61F (prosthetics, medical devices and treatment devices).

Determining the top players

Other examples of medical 3D printing success includes the creation of plastic tracheal splints and limb prosthetics, as well as titanium replacements for jaws and hips. With this in mind, we decided to take a deeper dive into the competitive landscape in the 3D printing space within medical and dental, in order to uncover more detail about the main players within this specific area.

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Source: PatSnap Insights

In this analysis, we find ConforMIS tops the list. ConforMIS focuses on knee replacement technology. 3D printing techniques enable ConforMIS to create replacement joints that mimic the shape of any individual’s knee. It is another example of the trend towards personalized therapies.

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Reengineering the value chain

The wider picture here is that it is now possible to produce customized and specialist implants in a way that is scalable - and in a way that obviates the need for long supply chains involving raw materials, prototyping, delivery and stocking. As Med Device Online explains: “Through more efficient product development, companies may bring new technologies to the market faster — products that more tightly align with patient-specific conditions and clinician demand for improved outcomes.”

Reaching the masses

The improved efficiency means that 3D printing does not just cater for surgical implants, but can also be used for a range of other medical devices as well, especially where customization features are required to make them more comfortable for wearers. For example, companies such as EnvisionTEC and Sonova specialize in printing ear shells for hearing aids. Likewise, suppliers of glasses are all too aware of how difficult it can be to get the right frames to fit every unique individual’s face and head shape - a problem being worked on by Materialise and HOYA.

With customizable eyewear and hearing aids, combined with an ageing popoulation across the developed world, it becomes far easier to see how we will reach that 10% figure that Gartner forecasts. Meanwhile, innovation isn't stopping there, with bioprinting also an emerging field. This technique involves printing human tissue and organs by layering living cells instead of plastic or titanium. While bioprinting remains in the experimental phase, the ability to print human tissue could have a huge impact on such things as pharmaceutical research, transplants, surgical operations and reconstructive surgery. PatSnap Insights shows that, in 2016, the number of granted patents relating to bioprinting reached its highest level yet in another example of innovation activity that is set to change the world - and dramatically improve quality of life.

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