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3D printing

Kyle JamesFebruary 8, 2012

A woman in the Netherlands has been fitted with a lower jaw created by a 3D printing process. Doctors say it is the first operation of its kind and paves the way for more widespread use of printed implants.

Coated lower jaw implant detail
The lower jaw implant was printed out using titanium powder in thousands of layersImage: LayerWise

A Dutch and Belgian team has announced the successful creation and installation of a 3D-printed jaw.

The transplant involved an implant made out of titanium powder, which was heated and fused together by a laser, one layer at a time. Doctors said the successful operation paves the way for more medical procedures using 3D printed parts, which can be produced and modified for individual patients and printed in a few hours.

The 83-year-old patient underwent the transplant in June, but it is only now being published.

The surgery was based on research carried out by the Biomedical Research Institute at Hasselt University in Belgium. The titanium jaw was built by LayerWise, a 3D-printing firm in Leuven, Belgium that specializes in dental and bone implants.

The patient had developed a chronic bone infection and doctors were afraid traditional reconstructive surgery would have been too risky because of her age.

Although the implant is complex, involving articulated joints, cavities which promote muscle attachment and grooves for nerves and veins, after the initial design it only took a few hours to print.

Layer by layer

After LayerWise received the jaw's 3D design, it split the part up into 2D layers and sent those cross sections to a printing machine, which used a laser to melt thin layers of titanium powder together to build the implant.

Each cross section was melted onto a previous layer. It took 33 layers to build up 1 mm of height.

Doctors operating using the printed implant
Doctors said the operation's success will pave the way for more widespread useImage: LayerWise

“So you can imagine there were many thousand layers necessary to build this jawbone,” Ruben Wauthle, LayerWise's medical applications engineer, told the BBC.

After completion, the part was given a bioceramic coating and doctors attached it to the woman's face. The operation took four hours, a fifth of the time required for traditional reconstructive surgery.

The patient was allowed to go home after four days with her new jaw, which weighs about a third more than her original one.

Big potential

The medical team involved said it believes such procedures will become more common over time given the advantages: reduced surgery and hospitalization times, custom-fitted implants and lower overall costs.

Wauthle said the ultimate goal was to print body organs ready for transplant, although because of biological and chemical issues still to be solved, that could be beyond the lifetimes of many working in the field today.

"To print organic tissue and bone you would need organic material as your 'ink',” Wauthle said. “Technically it could be possible - but there is still a long way to go before we're there."

Huge impact

3D printers can be used to build physical objects from scratch – or rather, from a 3D file – out of variety of materials, including plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass and even edibles like cheese, icing, and chocolate. The material is laid down, layer by layer, to form the physical item.

This “additive manufacturing” process is becoming more popular and widespread as the technology has advanced and the price of 3D printers has fallen. The list of possible applications, besides healthcare, includes jewelry design and art, architecture and metal casting. Other possible uses include archaeology and paleontology, whereby researchers could use the process to replicate ancient artefacts or reconstruct fossils.

Jaw implant
The 3D printing process makes implants now, perhaps sneakers in 20 yearsImage: LayerWise

In an article last year, The Economist wrote that 3D printing could have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did. It could make it just as cheap to print individual items as producing thousands, thereby undermining economies of scale. Eventually some producers might stop manufacturing and sell their 3D designs directly to buyers to print out themselves.

“It is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches,” the magazine wrote.

Some worry that as 3D printing becomes more widespread and the technology continues to develop, it could result in an avalanche of patent violations and counterfeiting as people “steal” objects – from sneakers to car parts – by downloading a blueprint then covertly printing out a copy at home.


Last month file-sharing site The Pirate Bay introduced a new category called “physibles” designed to allow people to share physical objects for download via 3D printing technology. Users can download digital files of cowboy hats, teddy bears or ships to print out as physical objects.

Canadian Charles Randall was one of the first to download plans for a small 3D pirate ship from the site's logo. He sent the plans to a site, Shapeways.com, which printed the small ship and sent it to Randall's home.

While Shapeways' business is now focused on small items like jewelry, gadget accessories and home décor, The Pirate Bay on its website said it thinks users will soon be downloading all sorts of objects from the website

“We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare parts for your vehicles," The Pirate Bay's administrators wrote. "You will download your sneakers within 20 years.”

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Cyrus Farivar