Making 3D printing more medtech mainstream; The tools for the job Copied: Ian Bolland

The project itself will allow the development of a toolkit which will act as an instruction manual to improve the pathway from research all the way through to development and clinical adoption; identifying how medical technology companies can develop personalised and tailored medical devices.

Wildman began by outlining that the project is being driven by industry needs and finding out why companies had – or in some cases hadn’t – adopted additive manufacturing.

“One of the things that we found out is there’s a lot of desire for 3D printing, but there are bottlenecks, some real problems with uptake. One of the major problems around that is the availability of materials.”

Although there is a need for personalised, tailored, and effective medtech devices, the materials have not been available, product development, along with route to market, can be long.

The Centre for Additive Manufacturing, a multidisciplinary research group at The University of Nottingham, feels it can address this problem with its toolkit, and that it will help to unlock a bottleneck that prevents the bringing of new innovative engineering to the NHS.

Among the toolkit’s armoury will be its ability to provide advice to manufacturers regarding what materials can be used for specific devices, or what materials are available that can be 3D printed.

“In the simplest terms it’s giving them a recipe saying, ‘here are the materials you want to use and here is the way to put it together.’

“We are driven by this idea that 3D printing can be used to make these personalised devices. It is very difficult for those who are used to traditional manufacturing to be able to jump to 3D printing.”

In sum, it’s a 3D printing guide for those who are unfamiliar with it. There are many examples of how it has been used in the medical sector, whether that has been for the casing of devices, prosthetics, or indeed developing new dummy organs that can be used in the field if medical education such as laparoscopic surgery training.

While 3D printing plays a very important role in the development of these medical products and its packaging, Wildman highlights that the process has probably not yet realised its potential in medtech, and in its sister sector of pharmaceuticals.

“What we are imagining are devices that have these other functions in there that we can perhaps maybe bio function, or have some other function other than just structural, like you would get in packaging or prosthetics. We’ve imagined three products in this project to begin with, at least to be able to drive this toolkit because you have to set yourself the goal of making these sorts of game-changing products to really pull out what that toolkit is going to be able to achieve.”

The £6 million grant will help the researchers create a platform by which industry can deliver, on demand, the materials and processes needed to 3D print medical technology and devices. Additive Manufacturing will help create highly functional, smart products for (bio)pharma, cell therapy/regenerative medicine, (bio)catalysis and more, that until now have been impossible to create using traditional manufacturing.

The goal is an instruction toolkit that will identify how medical technology can develop personalised, tailored medtech devices. To see widespread uptake across hospitals, pharmacies and the wider NHS, manufacturing products embedded with advanced functionality need the capability to quickly, predictably, and reliably ‘dial up’ performance, to meet sector specific needs and specific advanced functionalities. Researchers hope the toolkit will bring new technology such as prosthetic limbs, ‘smart pills and intestinal patches that can rebuild tissues damaged through chronic disease.

Wildman continued: “A real problem with trying to get complex therapeutics delivered to patients is that you’ve got tablets, you have to have injections or really high loadings of peptides, and so on. First of all, we’re imagining a tailored pill that can help get a biologic into people. What we imagine is that imagine if instead of having vaccines via injection where you have to queue up at a local GP, and instead packaging them up and sending them out as pills. Now, how much easier would it have been in the pandemic?”

This could mean that intestinal patches could be used in this instance. Wildman also cited examples of those who suffer from chronic intestinal diseases where stem cells could replace tissue – and 3D printing would be needed to replicate it, along with some more important parts of the chemistry for the tissue.

“A third product is, is a mini reactor. When we are producing medicines, we have to be very specific. Some medicines are very difficult to produce in high specificity. At the moment we have very big what I guess you call the traditional pack beds with enzymes that are located on beads that are placed in there. But it’s a very random process. You fill a cylinder full of beads and you run the reactions through, and you get a very uncontrolled set of conditions.

We’re envisaging these very small mini reactors; highly designed, highly specific, and to be able to dial that up to, manufacture medicines.”

The project involves working with Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and three players in the 3D printing industry in particular: Boston Micro Fabrication, Xaar and Formlabs.

So, what would make the project a success?

“If we are able to show our industrial partners that this toolkit will help product generation, we can have that adopted within their manufacturing workflows, that will be a real mark of success.

“I think it’s fair to say the all-3D printing companies, all 3D printing printer vendors are excited by the idea of having materials, and better materials, available for their systems.”