Walter Reed Army Medical Center surgeons who treat soldiers wounded in the war in Iraq have grown accustomed to difficult operations. But some are more delicate than others. Take the patient who needed a bony tumor removed from the back of the knee. The growth was situated precariously near a nerve and an artery junction, leaving doctors no room for error. The orthopedic surgeon was able to try the procedure first using a model of the knee, helping him avoid hitting the nerve or artery during the actual surgery.
But here's the kicker: The model was made not from a plaster cast but with a printer. Technicians first use software to transform a CT scan into a computerized 3D model, which is then sent to the printer. From there, the machine deposits ultra-thin layers of powder onto a surface, one on top of another, until it produces a 3D model. The powder is held together using a binding liquid that's deposited during printing. "With 2D images, it may be hard to visualize the full extent of the injury or the condition of the patient," says Peter Liacouras, senior medical engineer at Walter Reed. "We've had doctors say that with these 3D models, they get the feeling that they've been there before,"
Although 3D printing has been around since the early 1990s, the quality has increased dramatically in recent years and the prices are just beginning to drop. Walter Reed uses the ZPrinter 450, made by Z Corp., which retails for about $39,900. But less expensive models are making their way to the market. Z Corp. sells an entry-level model, the ZPrinter 310, for less than $20,000. 3D Systems (TDSC) is developing a sub-$10,000 printer that the company hopes will be released by yearend. And, within the next six months, a company called Desktop Factory hopes to launch a 3D printer for $4,995.
"Now that the price of these 3D printers has dropped dramatically, almost any enterprise can afford to buy one, so the net result is that companies are using them more and more," says Pete Basiliere, research director at consulting firm Gartner (IT). Because of these price reductions, Basiliere estimates that there will be 300,000 3D printers on the market by 2011. There were 3,651 3D printers sold in 2007, according to Wohlers Associates, a Fort Collins (Colo.)-based consulting firm.
Falling prices are bringing 3D printing to smaller business, such as Sweet Onion Creations, a four-person company based in Bozeman, Mont., which builds scale architectural models. Co-founders Lee and Jake Cook purchased the ZPrinter 310, which cost $26,000 at the time, because it was more affordable and produced less waste than other printers. With a ZPrinter, the Cooks could create a model in one-sixth the time and at one-third the cost of a handcrafted 3D model. Jake Cook acknowledges that it's a new technology and not perfect. "There are challenges with it," he says. "The precision could be better."
Now, Cook has his eye on Desktop Factory's sub-$5,000 printer. The idea behind the low-price machine came from Bill Gross, the founder of tech incubator Idealab. After the tech bubble burst, Gross was working with startups that relied on 3D printing to create prototypes for such items as components for robots and solar mirrors. "He paid $50,000 for the printer and each time he printed a [robotic part] it cost several hundred dollars," says Desktop Factory Chief Executive Cathy Lewis. Astounded by the expense, Gross asked an engineer to see if it might be possible to make less costly 3D printers. By 2004, the company was formed.
Lewis hopes a lower-priced 3D printer will expand the market further into such places as design firms, architecture firms, high schools, and colleges—even homes. "Right now 3D printers are behind locked doors in a big department," she says. In some cases, designers could use Desktop Factory's printers for early iterations, and then the more expensive machines for the finished model.
Indeed, Walter Reed Army Medical Center uses its 3D printer to help other medical facilities, including the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which specializes in reconstructive surgeries involving facial prosthetics, such as new noses or ears. The previous procedure involved putting plaster on the patient's face to make a mask. Now, doctors can use an imaging device, essentially a 3D camera, along with software that creates a map of the person's face with the corresponding prosthetic. The 3D printer can then print out a mask that surgeons can use as a guide for reconstructive surgery.
It's unlikely that a lower-end printer such as Desktop Factory's will be able to handle that kind of work any time soon. Still, in the coming years, 3D printing may become so advanced—and mainstream—that virtually any home would have a use for it. "One day you might be able to print out biomaterial at home, like a specially engineered bandage for your son or daughter's cut," Lewis says.