Germany's Fraunhofer Institute 3D prints potentially life saving miniature drug dispensaries

Apr 8, 2016 | By Andre

The field of medicine has been adopting 3D printing pretty well across the board for years now. From 3D printed dentistry and hearing aids to 3D printing with biological matter and for prosthetic limbs, the technology is booming in the field. The appeal for integrating the technology into the healthcare sector is based around the fact that every individual patient is unique and the one-size fits all approach born out of our current systems of mass-production is generally less compatible.

Researchers at the German research society Fraunhofer are perfectly aware of this and are utilizing what they call suspension-based additive manufacturing to create microreactors, bone implants, dentures, surgical tools and more. Their efforts, while foreign in scope to the non-medical community, have considerable implications to the future of how the field operates.

To illustrate an example, endoscopic surgery relies on instruments that are capable of cutting open tissue and closing up the blood vessels as quick as possible using an electric current. To address this, the Fraunhofer institute has effectively mixed both ceramic and metal materials through additive manufacturing so that a current can flow through and close the cut tissue, while also providing a protective ceramic layer, lesseing the shock for the patient. 

Tassilo Moritz from Fraunhofer notes that “ceramic substances are often well-suited for medical devices and components. Ceramics are sturdy and can be cleaned thoroughly,” and further that “our mixtures are very homogenous, and we precisely set the optimum level of viscosity. Only then can the printer put out the droplet size suitable for the particular component contour.”

Ultimately however, the largest contribution 3D printing might make to the institute’s research could be in the field of microreactor technology and personalized medicine. For those not in the know, these devices – barely larger than your average coin – exist so chemical reactions can take place on the miniature scale so to provide just the right combination of medicine – from painkillers to blood thinners – to any individual patient.

The material mixing of ceramics with their 3D printing method provides opportunity for microreactors to be created in a brand new way.

Moritz goes on to say that “to date, ceramic microreactors have mostly been milled out of plates. Internal and external sealing have always been a technological challenge for this. And there has been the problem of making connections that fit. Now, we can just print them onto the ceramic component during manufacturing in whatever form.”

From a technical perspective, the key to the technology relies on preparing the optimum ceramic or metallic suspensions through the thermoplastic binding from 80°C in its liquid state to a cooled down form, one layer at a time. It’s this sintering of finely ground ceramic or metallic substances that allow for the precision needed to produce the microreactors.

Pharmacists and chemists should also benefit from advancements in manufacturing microreactors with 3D printing. Moritz says that “it is more affordable and safer to first work with minimal quantities in a microreactor.”

Lastly, if you’re into microreactors, advancements in medical research in a general sense or just happen to find yourself near Stuttgart, Germany in the coming week, it might be worth checking out the Medtec Medical Technology Device Exhibition that’ll take place from the 12th – 14th of April. Fraunhofer and their 3D printed microreactor will be on full display.

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

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