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3D-printed heart (Image courtesy: Austin Health 3D Medical Printing Laboratory).
3D-printed heart (Image courtesy: Austin Health 3D Medical Printing Laboratory).

The 3D printing market has been flourishing worldwide in recent years with the technology having permeated into a number of different industry sectors including construction, medical, aerospace, consumer products and education. From 3D-printed houses to 3D-printed hearts, and to 3D-printed toilet bowls, the technology is showing enormous market potential. Rapidly developing, this market is also driving demand for upstream materials. The current main materials for 3D printing are plastics, rubber, metal powders, epoxy and ceramics. With unique edge in performance, plastics are a hot choice of material for 3D printing.

Statistics from foreign research institute MarketsandMarkets anticipate that the global 3D printing plastics market, being worth about USD0.49 billion and USD0.62 billion in 2017 and 2018 respectively, will reach USD1.97 billion in value by 2023. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 26.1% in the years between 2018 and 2023!

More importantly, the study also suggests that by 2023, the medical sector will prevail in the 3D printing plastics market.

The US and Europe keep leading positions

The aerospace, national defense and medical sectors are major end-users of 3D printing plastics. Thanks to the high maturity of these sectors in their regions, North America and Europe will continue to be the main markets of 3D printing plastics by 2023, followed by the Asian Pacific region.

The forward integration of major polymer producers is one of the factors that drive the growth of the 3D printing plastics market. Also, other factors, including the increasing demand for 3D printing technology in all kinds of applications, as well as the demand for bio-based plastics, also have a positive impact on the 3D printing plastics market.

The US, Germany, China, Japan and the UK are the major consumption markets of 3D printing plastics, thanks mainly to the ever increasing use of 3D printing technology in all kinds of end-user industries in these countries.

In North America and Europe, those big names in the chemical industry are investing more and more on the 3D printing plastics market. These companies are working with printing machine manufacturers to develop 3D printing plastic grades that are suitable for use with specific technology.

The leading 3D printing plastic brands include 3D Systems Corporation from the US, Stratasys Ltd, DuPont, BASF, Evonik and SABIC. With mature sales networks and knowhow in the 3D plastics market, increasing investment in research projects, and strong technology and market development capabilities, they are capable of upgrading their existing products to suit new applications.

As for China, 3D medical plastic products are being widely used in the medical industry. For instance, a total of seven products in relation to 3D printing plastics were selected to be listed in the 2018 Results of Defining the Classification of Medical Equipment (translated) recently released by China’s National Institutes for Food and Drug Control. They include medical equipment products such as light cured modeling materials, which is a kind of light cured resin, for dental casting applications.

Medical sector will prevail in 3D plastics market

According to MarketsandMarkets' study, based on the end-user industry, the 3D printing plastics market has been segmented mainly into aerospace and national defense, medical and healthcare, automotive, electrical appliances and electronics, and so on.

The study shows that while the medical sector took up the largest share of the 3D printing plastics market in 2017, it is anticipated to occupy a leading position by 2023.

It is also expected that medical facilities and equipment, and orthopedic and dental implants will dominate the growth of the medical 3D printing plastics market in the next foreseeable few years.

Promising prospect for PEEK development

As medical materials have direct interaction with biological systems, there are stricter medical requirements on their biological compatibility, safety and so on. Their material selection, development and approval processes are also more stringent compared to those of other functional materials.

The materials that are mainly involved in polymers for medical 3D printing are polyamide (PA), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polycarbonate (PC), polypropylene (PP), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and so on.

It is noteworthy that polyetheretherketone (PEEK) has become an emerging hot material in the medical 3D printing plastics sector thanks to its excellent manufacturing and mechanical performance.

PEEK resin, which is a kind of special engineering plastic with ultrahigh performance, is the kind of resin with the highest thermal resistance grade and the best comprehensive performance. PEEK is high heat-resistant (with a loaded heat deflection deformation temperature reaching 316oC, a long time service temperature of 260oC, and an instant service temperature up to 300oC) while being abrasion-resistant and toxic-free. Together with outstanding fatigue resistance, chemical corrosion resistance, and ductile and tensile strengths, the biological material has exceptionally high potential for use in the medical implant sector.

At present, PEEK is mainly used in implants for surgeries for spines, traumas, joints and so on. One typical application is lumbar interbody fusion cage. Compared to conventional orthopedic surgical implants made from materials like titanium and so on, those made from PEEK stand out positively with advantages including offering instant cervical stability, securing fixed bone grafts, and facilitating bone graft fusion. In addition, thanks to PEEK’s X-ray permeability, they will cause no interference to CT or MRI scanning.

What’s more, PEEK is also used in such areas as artificial joints, artificial intervertebral discs and artificial nuclei. All in all, PEEK is more and more widely used clinically in medical products for spinal surgeries, traumas and orthopedics.

Four distinctive technologies

At the process technology level, 3D printing has gradually become an important direction of development for medical technology in the aspects of, for instance, implant manufacturing, tissue model manufacturing and surgery analysis and planning, tissue engineering support material customization, and cell or tissue printing.

The more often used technologies for the 3D printing of medical plastics today include fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS), stereolithography (SLA), and PolyJet.

 The J720 is an all-in-one dental printer combining speed, large capacity, high resolution and access to up to six materials at once.Every of these four processes has its own distinctive advantages and is being improved continuously. An example is the world’s leading 3D printing solution provider Stratasys’ new J720 Dental 3D multi-material 3D printer. Being ultra-efficient, the new machine offers 1.75X greater daily throughput than competing DLP and SLA dental printers!

Compared to smaller single-material printers, the J720 offers faster production thanks to a large tray that enables the printing of up to six materials at the same time. The need for material change is therefore reduced and the installation of multiple printers becomes unnecessary. Also, it can print multiple case types for faster production.

In addition, the J720 is built for realizing smarter production. With the GrabCAD Print software, it provides a simplified, all-digital workflow that makes it easy to go from the CAD model to a printed part. And its cloud connectivity enables the user to remotely monitor multiple printers from a single source, while material consumption and machine utilization can be automatically tracked.

Application expands from equipment to drug making

3D-printed pills.The three major application areas of 3D medical plastic products now are artificial tissues and organs, medical equipment and 3D-printed drugs. As far as artificial organs are concerned, applications include living tissues (printed blood vessels, cartilage tissues and so on) and artificial organs (artificial livers, hearts and so on).

With respect to medical equipment, the current applications of 3D medical plastic products include transfusion and infusion equipment, central catheters, cardiac catheters, syringes, peritoneal dialysis catheters, medical adhesives, as well as all kinds of medical catheters, medical membranes, wound dressing materials and so on. In future, plastic products that can tolerate a variety of disinfection methods, those that can improve blood compatibility and tissue compatibility, and those for new diagnoses, treatments, preventions, and healthcare, will become development trends.

Another direction in which 3D printing is developing is drugs. Polymers play a critical role in the research, development and production of modern pharmaceuticals as they perform significant functions in improving pharmaceutical quality and in the development of new drug delivery systems. Currently, pharmaceutical polymers are mainly used to improve dosage forms and drug release and targeting, synthesize new drugs, and so on.

Starting from the fast making of medical models to using 3D printing technology to directly make hearing aid housings, implants, complex surgical equipment, 3D-printed drugs and so on, and from non-living 3D-printed medical equipment to bioactive printed artificial tissues and organs, 3D printing has been more deeply and widely developing in the medical industry as a result of the continuous development of the technology and the growth in the demand for more precise and customized medical needs. 

After getting a user’s foot data by 3D scanning, the iSUN3D FLX printer can print a pair of insoles that fit the user’s foot shape with the super-soft TPU filaments. Such insoles can set the foot rigidly in shoes and hence help maintain foot health.eSUN introduced recently its 3D printing system for medical insoles, an originally developed new technology of China. Using an integrated scanning, designing and printing machine, this project is mainly targeted for use in the production of tailor-made diabetic foot insoles, flat foot insoles, and sports shoe insoles.

The machine features a 3.5-inch high-resolution touch screen display and a “resume printing after power off” function.In particular, the iSUN3D FLX high-speed flexible printer is a double-station machine that can separately print two insoles concurrently. Being highly efficient, it is able to form a pair of adult insoles in 40-60 minutes. Its double E-axis motors help eliminate the problem of filament clogging while ensuring even and smooth extrusion of filaments. Besides, the use of high-precision imported parts makes it possible for the printer to produce smooth surfaces.

For material, eSun’s eTPU-95A filaments are used. This material’s high flexibility and resilience lead to a largely lowered permanent compression set rate, while its moisture permeability and hydrolysis resistance enable samples to be tolerant to working conditions such as being washed in clear water and warmth keeping. It is also environmentally friendly as it requires no heating base plate, can extrude filaments smoothly, and is free of odor and taste.

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