How 3-D printing could disrupt the healthcare supply chain

3-D printing, also known as "additive manufacturing," has captured increasing mainstream interest, with new breakthroughs and applications being announced all the time. While it is revolutionizing the way certain products are manufactured, 3-D printing is poised to substantively benefit the production of medical devices and the healthcare supply chain overall.

In its 2016 trend report, logistics company DHL says 3-D printing can significantly lower complexity in manufacturing and holds numerous advantages over conventional production techniques.

3-D printers obtain printing information from a digital file and inject materials in successive patterns to build a three-dimensional solid object from plastics and metals. As a result, a variety of products can be manufactured from a single 3-D printer, thereby reducing the number of steps in the production chain. This enables manufacturing companies to achieve significant savings on logistics and production costs. Companies that use 3-D printing can find additional savings from the reduction of production waste and the improvement of sustainable business practices.

Specific to healthcare, 3-D printing has been used in a variety of meaningful applications, such as in the production of prosthetic implants and limbs, as well as prosthetic dentistry. As healthcare strives to emphasize the individualization of care, Gartner estimates that by 2019, 3-D printing will be considered a critical tool in healthcare, being used in more than 35 percent of all surgical procedures requiring prosthetic and implant devices within and around the body. By then, Gartner also estimates that 10 percent of people in the developed world will be living with a 3-D-printed item on or in their body.

McKinsey Global Institute researchers project the 3-D printing market could have an impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025. However, DHL does not think the technique will fully supplant current practices of mass production: it will serve as a complementary process.

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