U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jacklyn Smith adjusts a face mask 3D-printed at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.

Jul 14 2020

3D Printing Gains a Foothold in Medical and Military Arenas

VA, FDA, Army, Marines and other agencies use 3D printing to speed up the supply chain and simplify complex equipment needs.

Long used for prototyping, new innovations and materials have transformed 3D printing, also called advanced or additive manufacturing, into an integral component of the federal government’s supply chain.

At the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, Dr. Beth Ripley directs the Veterans Health Administration 3D Printing Network, leading the charge to revolutionize healthcare through 3D printing and manufacturing.

Eight years ago, the VA had just two 3D printing sites; today that number is up to 33. Initially, the program focused on producing assistive technology products for the masses, such as devices that attached to prosthetics to improve mobility. Team members now integrate personal medical imaging data into product designs.

“It’s not just anatomy, it’s your anatomy,” Ripley says. “That opens up a whole new world of innovations and understanding about the patient. If you build a prosthetic made just for a specific person, the outcomes are much better.”

While the private sector is working to scale 3D printing for mass production purposes, a report by Research and Markets suggests that high material costs are still an obstacle.

“Government initiatives aimed at increasing the awareness and promoting the benefits of adopting 3D printers are expected to help counter the market restraints,” according to the February 2020 report.

Support by and collaboration with federal government agencies is crucial for continued U.S. innovation, says Michael A. Hickner, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State University.

“In some cases, I think that the federal government really leads in additive manufacturing technology development,” says Hickner. “Companies benefit, and jobs are created. We need federal partnerships to develop these new tools and technologies.”

The VA has found that this advanced technology has improved patients’ quality of life and saved money because of the high success rates of custom-printed parts and fewer hospital visits, Ripley says.

“One of the most promising upcoming technologies is bioprinting — the creation of 3D-printed, living, vascularized bone to replace bone that’s been damaged by chronic infection or a tumor,” she adds. “It will be a real game changer.” 

Agencies Bring 3D Printing to the Front Line

3D innovation is also soaring in the military. The Army’s Center of Excellence for Advanced and Additive Manufacturing at the Rock Island Arsenal-Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center leverages 3D printing to save manufacturing costs, exceed schedule demands and produce intricate designs not possible with traditional manufacturing.

“The Army is operationalizing additive and advanced manufacturing to improve equipment readiness and war fighter capabilities at the tactical level,” says Brian Butler, deputy to the commander, U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command. “Ultimately, the goal is to have the capability to print repair parts as needed and reduce production times to increase readiness with a rapid solution.”

In the Marine Corps, about 300 3D printers have been fielded worldwide, says Capt. Matt Audette, a project officer in the Marine Corps Systems Command’s Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell.

In addition to prototyping and rapid printing capabilities, the MCSC can print objects in a wide range of sizes and materials, such as polymers, chopped carbon fiber, concrete and metal.

“It strengthens the supply chain while simultaneously shortening it,” Audette says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the supply chain works great, but in some edge cases things can grind to a halt. With 3D printing, we can make items onsite.”

Using a large-scale printer and a concrete composite, the Marines built a 500-square-foot barrack in less than 40 hours. They are working with partners such as the Army Corps of Engineers to prototype and print other large construction objects, such as boats, buildings and bridges.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how the Marien Corps is using 3D printing. 

Public-Private Partnerships Aid Crisis Response

And while the Marines can go big, they can also go very small. When a lance corporal at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina kept getting shocked by a worn-out microphone button, he turned to the 2nd Marine Logistics Group Makerspace for help.

“Typically, we’d have to throw away the radio,” Audette says. “Instead, the lance corporal and the design team created a clip that fits over the button. Now we can print one little clip for less than a dollar instead of replacing a $49 microphone. Those savings add up.”

Both the VA and the Marine Corps partnered with other federal agencies to help combat the COVID-19 crisis. “We joined forces with the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to work together on supply-chain issues, mainly designing and printing personal protective equipment,” Ripley says.

705,694

The number of desktop 3D printers (cost < $5,000) in 2019

Source: Wohlers Associates, “Wohlers Report 2020," March 2020

The resulting open-source designs reside on a public website, the NIH 3D Print Exchange, and are available for download. “Anyone can grab those files and know that they’ve been vetted through the partnership between the FDA, NIH and VA,” Ripley says.

Marines stationed at Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan, were already making 3D replacement parts for ­airplanes, but they are now also ­making personal protective equipment such as mask frames and eye shields for Marine medical personnel.

But not all 3D projects are so serious. At the Smithsonian Institution, the 3D Program makes more than 2,300 models of objects and specimens available for public use. People can download the information needed to print replicas of a 12-ton marble statue of George Washington, the space shuttle Discovery and a tin of Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.

READ MORE: Find out how NASA lets astronauts print in any orientation.

Smithsonian Enables a Wide Range of 3D Printing 

Team members use a wide variety of tools to capture data, including laser-structured light, computed tomography and photogrammetry, and software originally designed for the medical, automotive, animation and visual effects industries.

Content is typically downloaded by educators and home users, but there have been commercial uses as well. Some of the 3D content is available on Autodesk’s Tinkercad, a popular, browser-based 3D design tool that also enables 3D printing.

“We have scanned everything from a small blue crab to giant spacecraft and many sizes in between,” says Vincent Rossi, a supervisor in the 3D Program, part of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office.

Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc/U.S. Marine Corps; bananajazz/Getty Images (icon)