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Made to Measure – 3D Printing

Originally published in the VN Times (Veterinary Nursing Times) – VN Times Technology Column – Made to Measure (3D Printing)

Made to Measure – 3D Printing

Will 3D Printing Revolutionise the Veterinary Industry?

What is 3D printing? Not “printing” in the true sense, but the building up of layers of material as directed by a 3D design, or template, crafted by a designer using computer software. The ‘printer’ merely provides a gantry for the movement, placing in space and deposition of the materials, which results in the object being built up. At present, they can only use one type of material at a time (plastic, resin or metal), but this will change in time as the technology develops. The main commercial uses at present for 3D printing are in both personalised retail and precision components, with unique items being created cheaply and without the need for investment in heniously expensive specialist equipment.

Veterinary Applications?

There are several areas in veterinary practice where this technology could theoretically be applied. Before we start exploring these, it may be worth agreeing to limit the scope of our future predictions, keeping initially to those that are more realistic in terms of being achievable in the foreseeable future, with some time given at the end to “go crazy” and really think beyond the box. Deal? Excellent.

Two main areas in which 3D printing may make an impact in clinics:


Prosthetics & implants. The most obvious application. Need an individually tailored plate for Barney’s TTO procedure, with no need to wait for a next-day special delivery and no requirement to bend the damned thing into the precise shape required? Well Barney will have been CT scanned as a routine, with his specific, personalised body mapping data fed into the CAD (Computer Aided Design) software that will be used, at the press of a button, to design any type of plate, implant or prosthesis required for his surgery. The printer will kick into gear and before you have even finished scrubbing you will have before you a perfect tool for the job at hand. If you drop it then it really doesn’t matter as you can just hit ‘print’ again and produce another.

Remote surgical tool production & inventory reduction. One of the issues for any business using physical products is stock control and storage. The balance between keeping enough of what you may need in stock versus taking up valuable space and representing tied up capital is an age-old problem. Imagine just being able to keep in one of the most common items required and ‘printing’ any extras that you may need when you specifically need them. Quick, simple and elegant. The value for large animal vets on visits is also clear, as taking out a small, mobile 3D printer will enable them to manufacture on-site the specific materials needed for the job. This will reduce the need to take out everything-but-the-kitchen-sink that most large animal vets currently have to do, and help reduce the costs associated with transporting and keeping all of this equipment. The cost savings may even be able to be passed on to clients, making them happier in the process.

Off the Wall Idea

At home prescription ‘printing.’ Keeping drugs in stock is another ‘stock management’ issue faced by many clinics, especially ensuring that they are able to satisfy the requirements of daily clinic use and repeat prescriptions. The latter has, to some extent, been relieved by the online pharmacies who fulfill written prescriptions and thus have the hassles of keeping stock in, albeit at the extent of profit walking away from you. The future may be for clients to pay for an ‘e-prescription,’ which is essentially a highly specialised CAD file that they can get their at-home molecular 3D printer to act on, effectively “printing” their pet’s prescription at home, limited automatically to the strength, size, formulation and amount that you, as their vet, have specified. The client is happy because they get the prescription without even having to leave their homes, their pet is happy because they’re getting the right medication when they should, without any fears of sourcing counterfeit medications, and you’re happy as you know what your patient is getting and may well be able to charge a premium for this ‘value added’ service.

Clearly, the latter example is a little more radical than the first two but with the advances being constantly made in this truly exciting and revolutionary area, I wouldn’t bet on it being a reality before too long. Truly an exciting future.