Is 3D printing the future of healthcare?

The 2017 edition of Arab Health put 3D printing centre-stage as the healthcare industry looks to capitalise on the UAE’s ambitious innovation drive



At the end of January, more than 4,400 healthcare companies from 70 countries across the world gathered at Arab Health in Dubai – the annual regional showcase of the industry’s latest technologies, trends, workshops and discussions.

Among the many and varied developments and topics at the exhibition were big data, orthopaedics, oncology, radiology, workforce empowerment and diabetes. But perhaps the most eagerly anticipated conversations were those surrounding 3D medical printing.

A dedicated 3D medical printing zone drew crowds to its live 3D printing displays, demonstrations of 3D printed bionic limbs in use, and discussions with experts about the near future for 3D printing in healthcare.

With many attendees exploring the clinical, laboratory and pharmaceutical applications for 3D printing – as well as its numerous commercial considerations – the high profile representation of 3D printing at this year’s event dramatically eclipsed 2016, highlighting the advances made over the course of 12 months.

Among the exhibitors was the Dubai Health Authority, which revealed its dental services department would use 3D printing technology in 2017 to print models of teeth for producing prostheses.

The department’s director, Dr Hamda Mesmar said: “Using this technology, a dentist will simply scan the teeth using an intraoral scanner, which will create a digital impression. This image is then sent across to the 3D printing machine through the intranet from different dental clinics within DHA, which then replicates the image as a 3D model.

“The 3D image helps us with accurate planning and precision, especially for complicated dental procedures and surgeries. Patients will greatly benefit from the use of this technology as it helps in better patient outcomes as well as substantially reduces waiting time and cost of care.”

Also speaking at the event was Mohsen Ahmad, vice president of the Logistics District at urban development Dubai South, who explained the impact and disruption of 3D printing to both healthcare and the logistics industry.

“3D printing will help consumers and businesses print the objects they desire closer to their own location, thus turning the model from ‘out-sourcing’ to ‘near-sourcing’, which will eventually impact the environment, as well as have a bearing on the cost of goods produced.

“Logistic hubs will gradually take on a manufacturing component and be the creators of mass customisation.

“In healthcare, 3D printing allows us to personalise devices and implants to individual anatomies, drastically reducing the need to buy items in bulk. The value to the healthcare sector is tremendous as hospital critical spare parts, as well as joints and dental implants will not only be highly customised, but swiftly delivered and cost efficient.”

Another exhibitor, US 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys, demonstrated how 3D printing is benefitting hospital theatre procedures and improving physician training. Elsewhere, GE Healthcare showed its application to create 3D models of unborn babies – a development that could help in cases of congenital anomalies.

During the exhibition, Medcare also announced the launch of a new facility that will use 3D model reconstruction of blood vessels to help with coronary angiography procedures.

These and other innovations at Arab Health ensured that 3D printing was a key talking point at the summit – something that is sure to have won favour among many in Dubai in particular. The emirate is aiming to become a global capital for 3D printing strategy technologies by 2025 through a strategy based primarily on construction, consumer products and medical products.

The value of 3D printed medical products in Dubai is expected to reach about Dhs1.7bn ($463m) by 2025, with 3D printed teeth, bones, artificial organs, medical and surgical devices and hearing aids among the focal points of the strategy.

The wider plans for 3D printing include building strong infrastructure, legislation, funding, talent and market demand, helping Dubai to tap into what is expected to be a $300bn global market within eight years.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, previously cited 3D printing as a major part of Dubai’s future, saying that some 25 per cent of Dubai’s buildings will be 3D printed by 2030.

When the 3D printing strategy was launched in April last year, Sheikh Mohammed said: “The UAE is presenting to the world today the first integrated and comprehensive strategy to exploit the 3D technology to serve humanity.

“We have also framed practical plans and precise goals to turn the strategy into reality – the reality that will contribute to the progress and prosperity of the world and help preserve our human heritage.

“The future will depend on 3D printing technologies in all aspects of our life, starting from houses we live in, the streets we use, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear and the food we eat.”

At the time, Sheikh Mohammed also said: “Through the 3D Printing Strategy we aim to make Dubai a global hub for the development of this technology and a base for research and development in this area. We aim to provide the best opportunities for innovation and optimal application of this technology worldwide.

“Our goal is to raise the level of services provided to the people and harness 3D printing for the benefit of the entire community.”

While Dubai may have ambitions to lead in the 3D printing healthcare market, there have already been significant gains globally, with the market expected to continue growing at 18.3 per cent annually until 2020. Medical and dental 3D printing materials alone are predicted to grow at a rate of 19.1 per cent in the same period.

The developments being made in 3D printing are expected to make healthcare cheaper in certain areas, with 3D-printed solutions offering an often more affordable price-point – bucking the trend of ever-rising healthcare costs.

And while 3D printing may have been around since the mid 1980s, it has only become a viable manufacturing process in recent years, meaning we are only starting to realise its potential benefits. The latest developments in prosthetics, implants, tissue and even organ replication suggest even greater advances in the coming months and years, with Dubai firmly in the foreground as it seeks to push the boundaries of what is possible with the technology.