3D printing in healthcare blends medical and consumer devices

The healthcare market for 3D printing is projected to surpass $1 billion by 2020 as the technology crosses over from medical devices to consumer technology, such as wearables.

In part one of this two-part Q&A, Lee Dockstader, director of vertical market development for HP Inc.'s 3D printing business, discusses how the market for 3D printing in healthcare is projected to exceed $1 billion within the next few years and how new applications for the technology are being found in consumer devices. In part two, Dockstader explains how 3D printed products can affect patient compliance.

I've read estimates that 3D printing in healthcare is projected to reach $1.2 billion by 2020. Do you believe that is a correct estimate?

Lee Dockstader: It is, and it's probably a little light. I just saw a dental one that said it was going to be around $3 billion by 2024, I think it was. The last few years of those industries, if something's growing 30%, the last two or three years of a 10-year forecast is half of it. But [it's] kind of hard to figure out what's going on. Again, in some cases, they're going to probably overestimate. In some cases, they'll miss an entire segment. Ten years is a long time in high tech.

Do you think there will be an initial boom of 3D printing in healthcare and then it will plateau?

Lee Dockstader, director of vertical market development, 3D printing, HP Inc.Lee Dockstader

Dockstader: I think it really depends on the applications. You know, once something gets saturated. ... Like hearing aids now is saturated. It's been 10-plus years and pretty much every manufacturer is using it. And the number of people that get hearing aids isn't increasing much. So the whole hearing aid business is increasing, you know, a couple of percent.

But one of the spinoffs that might happen is custom headphones. That won't be considered medical, but it's using the exact same technology. So as the printers, the materials and the software get better and better, it'll open up new industries with its very similar, if not the same, technology. Now that's kind of a unique one, but look at wearables. You look at heart monitors that are now on a chip. A heart monitor and all was medical and now it's in your iPhone, in your Galaxy and the Fitbit and all that kind of stuff.

Well, now there's technology that you can put [in] these chips and monitor your oxygen levels and your heartbeat, put it in your running headphones and it fits in the bottom of your ear. And it sits there and monitors your oxygen and your heartbeat. And it's on a Bluetooth. And as you run, it'll track your oxygen intake and your heartbeat. And then it gives you an analysis of how fit you were that day. And then, hopefully, in a couple of months, if you're trying to tune up, it will tell you that you're more fit.

So some of the wearables technology, it's fascinating. And that's going to cross over. Is that really medical? Or is that consumer? Well, it's a little bit of both. Some of this is going to cross over.

Are there any specific concerns for 3D printing in healthcare?

Dockstader: Most of it's pretty well sorted out. The data breaches in your heartbeat and your running track, I don't think any national security issues are going come from that. But, you know, kind of long term, ... are some of the materials used going to cause an allergic reaction or stuff like that? But you might not catch that in the first, say, six months, but long term. You know, those are always concerns with any kind of medical device or any kind of skin contact. And most of the tests are in place to test those kinds of materials. But it is a whole generation of new materials for 3D printing, and they're not as well-known as your traditional plastics and metals. We use the same materials, but we process them different. And is that going to change?

We don't think so. But [those are] things that we take into consideration, and we go through stringent testing. Even in cases where it's not required [to get Food and Drug Administration] clearance, responsible vendors will still do the skin sensitivity and the cytotoxicity tests to make sure that it doesn't cause any kind of reaction. I mean, us as 3D printer companies, we don't create medical devices. It's like somebody has a [computer numerical control] machine. Is that a medical device? No, not unless you say, 'This is the specific machine that makes heart valves.'

Otherwise, you're just selling a generic device. So we don't market it as a medical device, but the medical companies that buy it, they know how they get it cleared and approved.

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