The Role of 3D Printing in Health

Exploring the capabilities of 3D printing for the future of medicine and healthcare

  • What could digital transformation mean for the Medicine 4.0 revolution?

  • The possibilities of using 3D printing to print real cells, forming live human tissues

  • The potential in using 3D printing to boost national health


Have you ever wanted to imagine what Industry 4.0 holds for the future of medicine? What will they be able to cure or treat? The Fourth Industrial Revolution will certainly bring what seems to be unlimited opportunity and potential for scientific advancements, especially in the field of healthcare. And at the heart of the Medicine 4.0 revolution is digital transformation. It’s much more than changes in the way a hospital operates as a business, or how a doctor provides care to a patient. It’s also ushering in “smarter” manufacturing processes with technologies like 3D printing that will help create cheaper, faster, more flexible, responsive and personalised medical solutions that were previously completely impossible except maybe on board a starship in popular science fiction.


While the technology was initially introduced during the 1980s, it just wasn’t all that practical or commercially viable at the time. 3D printing has only really been possible for about the last ten years. The earlier printers were far too slow and expensive for real-life printing needs, but today, 3D printing is at a level where healthcare systems have realised significant, tangible benefits for their patients using this technology. Even leading hospitals, medical schools, researchers and scientists across the world have made significant investments into developing 3D printing knowledge and capabilities, which in turn has revolutionised aspects of modern healthcare.


3D printers can be used to manufacture a variety of medical or healthcare-related devices, including those with complex geometry or features that can match a patient’s unique body and anatomy. Some of them are printed from a standard design, in order to make identical copies of the same device, quickly and cheaply. These can be created one at a time or as many as needed, no factory required. However, custom 3D printed medical devices, sometimes called “patient-matched or patient- specific devices”, are designed for a specific patient using their personal imaging data to fit with their body as well as possible. Currently, you can commercially 3D print many medical devices including:

• Instrumentation (assists with proper surgical placement of a device)

• Implants (cranial plates or hip joints)

• External prostheses (hands, limbs, feet)


Many medical researchers using the 3D printing process have moved on from printing with plastics and metals. They’re now printing with real cells that then form living human tissues. For many years, biological engineers tried to 3D print “scaffolds” that they could then seed with stem cells. The theory was that the stem cells would eventually differentiate and grow into the shapes of organs. But there wasn’t enough control in the process. No one can say they’ve quite cracked the code yet for creating a fully functional, transplantable human organ, but they sure are getting close. Scientists have been able to make portions of human organs and tissues, that can then be used for things like performing a drug test. They’ve been able to create living skin with blood vessels (which was a huge hurdle), helping accelerate research into grafts for burn victim treatments. They have even printed and transplanted ears onto children who were born with defects that left their ears underdeveloped. Ultimately, the end goal is to create more-complex tissues and organs that can be transplanted into someone who needs it to save their life.


As we enter a new reality with COVID-19 continuing to shake up supply chains and causing shortages of essential medical equipment, the 3D printing community is stepping in to help. From hobbyists to professionals, 3D printers are actually already helping to ease equipment shortages and save lives during this worldwide pandemic. People and companies across the globe are using 3D printing for everything from nasal swabs to face shields, to ear savers, ventilators, respirators and more. This crisis will hopefully open even more supply chain practitioners’ eyes to the possibilities of 3D printing for healthcare. And as the speed, reliability, safety and quality of 3D printing keeps improving, as well as the cost continuing to go down, 3D printers are set to play an important role in this 4.0 transformation of medicine as a whole.


There are a few local 3D printing services available in Brunei, such as Dyvan Co and Maxtra 3D, while DotRoot Technologies supplies 3D printers, along with Dyvan Co. The latter has also created 3D printed prototypes for students to use as model references in their studies. The company, as well as Maxtra 3D, also sells 3D printed commercial products such as gifts and decor.


The Maxillofacial, Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Centre, which was opened in 2018, offers services in the field of maxillofacial, facial plastic, reconstructive surgery, and head and neck surgical oncology, among others. It houses a 3D printing laboratory that contributes to its treatments.


There is certainly potential for 3D printing to grow beyond the personal and small-scale commercial level it currently resides in. As it becomes more commonplace, particularly areas such as in biotechnology labs in educational institutions, there are opportunities to introduce it into other industrial sectors, particularly the health industry.

We have just begun to see the real-life application of 3D printing in the local health sector, and while Brunei is starting to adopt the technology, there are a number of areas that would benefit from the quality and longevity of life in the nation.

According to the Ministry of Health, cardiovascular disease (CVD) was among the leading causes of death in Brunei Darussalam, contributing to almost 25% of deaths in 2018 alone. While factors such as fitness and nutrition are ones that should be considered in lowering the rate of people suffering from CVD, 3D printing offers a unique benefit for medical professionals to discover more about how to treat CVD.

The 3D printing process can help provide a deeper understanding of the cardiac and vascular anatomy for cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, cardiac radiologists and cardiovascular device industry to manage these complex diseases successfully. As 3D structures of the anatomy will vary greatly from patient to patient, this will help in discovering discrepancies and issues that might not often be immediately seen from 2D imaging data, such as through cardiac computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Creating life-size models of specific parts of the anatomy through 3D printing that are more accurate beyond 2D data can help surgeons with clinical decision-making and surgical planning, as well as providing a better understanding of the affected parts of the body. They can also be used to facilitate communication between physicians and their patients to better explain their health situations, while also enhancing medical education for both patients and medical students.


While 3D printing is largely still in its infancy, there is a growing understanding for its uses. For now, the local 3D printing services listed earlier do give demonstrations to students, but you could also buy a 3D printer to experience its capabilities for yourself.

Would you be interested in learning more about 3D printing? What are some applications you might like to explore?