By Jan Philippe Grage

The amount and variety of medical technology in a typical radiology department is staggering. For years, when physicians and staff turned to these devices to help them in diagnosing and treating patients, few thought about how manufacturing practices affected their ability to provide care.

COVID-19 Disruption Shines Light on Manufacturing Processes

However, the disruption in global supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a heightened awareness of manufacturing processes and logistics. The disruption was both immediate—as when factories in China temporarily shuttered their doors—and long-lasting, as noted by all those still waiting today on backlogged orders ranging from consumer goods like furniture and appliances, to specialized items—including medical equipment.

As certain types of equipment became harder to source, hospital personnel also came to appreciate the interconnectedness of OEMs with component suppliers around the world. And as manufacturers looked for new ways to source the components they needed, many began to investigate alternative manufacturing, such as 3D printing.

In 2020, the worldwide market for 3D-printed products and services totaled $13.78 billion, according to Grand View Research. And the market is slated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 21% between 2021 and 2028, the research firm adds.

3D-Printed Components Already in Use

Radiologists may be surprised to learn that some of the equipment they use every day may already contain 3D-printed parts. For example, Dunlee produces anti-scatter grids made of tungsten and manufactured with a powder-bed, laser-melting method, which are a vital component of many CT scanners. 3D collimators are also produced with 3D tungsten printing.

While tungsten is a relative newcomer to 3D printing, its ability to form complex shapes and withstand high temperatures, as well as its non-magnetic properties, make it suitable for a variety of applications. Within medical imaging, 3D printing helps manufacturers explore new designs and enhance image quality.

Explore New Designs

Efficient prototyping with 3D printing allows manufacturers to test out innovative designs cost-effectively. Lowering the financial risk of innovation encourages manufacturers to explore new designs and may lead to more innovation in the final product.

Once prototypes are refined, 3D printing can be ramped up to accommodate large-scale manufacturing. Quality manufacturers don’t just produce 3D-printed parts, but also use their expertise in post-processing to make sure that the component meets specifications. The ability to create a component using 3D printing can save time as manufacturers seek to optimize overall system performance.

Enhance Image Quality

3D parts can also enhance image quality. For example, 3D tungsten anti-scatter grids improve image quality by absorbing unwanted scatter radiation. What’s more, they perform even better than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. Within Cone Beam CT, for instance, Dunlee’s 2D anti-scatter grids provide an improvement in signal-to-noise ratio up to a factor of 1.7 compared to previous solutions. By contributing to image quality, these 3D-printed components support confident diagnoses, and even potentially aid in preventing rescans.

Perhaps in the future, 3D printing will create opportunities for personalized medicine that can only be dreamed about today. For now, most applications of 3D printing are behind the scenes, but no less important in creating systems to support quality care.

Jan Philippe Grage is business manager of 3D printing at Dunlee.

Featured image: A 2D tungsten anti-scatter grid.