3D printing and titanium: A life-changing combination

Additive manufacturing and titanium powder will disrupt medical implant production.

3D printing’s customisation strengths enable the creation of almost any shape using additive manufacturing (AM) technology – even replicating our own skulls. Sandvik’s AM and metal powder specialists are exploring AM’s medical applications potential and preparing for the future of surgical implants.

Life-threatening accidents, vertebral damage, chronic osteopathic conditions, and side-effects from medical treatment can all irreparably damage patients. Consequences can be painful, debilitating, and even fatal, so solutions must enhance the healing process and improve patients’ prognoses. Medical implant technology has developed vastly over the years, and one of manufacturing’s most disruptive technologies is set to transform how patients are treated.

Medical implant developers require technologies that can deliver speed, individualisation, and the ability to produce complex designs. 3D printing, paired with bio-compatible materials such as titanium, is demonstrating its potential as the medical industry’s preferred manufacturing technology for life-changing solutions.

In the past, surgeons replaced areas of the body such as skull bones with metal mesh, which tended to be weak and imprecise. With 3D printing, doctors and designers use medical imaging to create a customised implant, shaped precisely to the individual’s anatomical data. This means that the patient can be fitted with an exact match to replace the lost or damaged area of the skull.

Sandviken, Sweden, is home to one cutting-edge titanium powder plant where Sandvik’s experts are unlocking the potential of 3D printed titanium devices for the medical industry.

“Titanium, 3D printing, and the medical sector are the perfect match,” explains Harald Kissel, R&D manager at Sandvik Additive Manufacturing. “Titanium has excellent properties and is one of few metals accepted by the human body, while 3D printing can rapidly deliver custom results for an industry where acting quickly could be the difference between life and death.” In addition to titanium’s material benefits, AM can help overcome some of the challenges when producing medical implants and prosthetics. Typically, the prosthesis fitting process involves several visits to create a device that complies to a patient’s needs, slowing the time between their life-changing surgeries and when they receive their devices.

“If a patient undergoes a serious accident, one that destroys areas such as the skull or spine beyond repair, they simply do not have time to spare to ensure their reconstructive devices fit correctly. Instead, they’re given solutions that work, but aren’t tailored to their bodies,” Kissel explains. “Long waiting times and a lack of customisation can really impact how a patient feels after they’ve undergone a life-changing event or procedure.

“Using computer tomography, it is now possible to optimise designs that simply cannot be produced using other manufacturing methods. What’s more, we can make our designs lighter, with less material waste and in shorter lead times. Patients could receive a perfectly matching device, in less time and using a high-performing, lightweight material,” Kissel says.

In summer 2020, Sandvik’s specialist powder plant earned ISO 13485:2016 medical certification for Osprey titanium powders, positioning its highly automated production process at the forefront of medical device development. As AM disrupts many areas of manufacturing, it’s clear that its potential in the medical sector will be life changing.