There are beginning to be some meaningful advances in 3D printing that could make it the preferred manufacturing method for many medical devices. This report from the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany announces an additive manufacturing technique that allows multiple materials to be printed to form a single part. Fraunhofer has developed a way to create ceramic and metal suspensions that utilize a thermoplastic binder. They can precisely control the viscosity of the suspension which is key to allowing the material to print correctly.
3D printing enables complex part geometry that cannot be achieved using conventional manufacturing techniques. That in itself is a huge benefit for medical device design, as it provides a cost-effective way of building parts with internal channels, pockets and other structures that could be useful for chemical mixing, drug delivery and other processing tasks. Additionally, 3D printing lends itself well to medical devices because annual production volumes are generally low, precluding capital-intensive methods such as injection molding.
The method developed at Fraunhofer can be used to print ceramic, glass, plastic and metal. This material flexibility combined with the geometrical freedom that 3D printing allows could truly revolutionize medical device design.