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Why The World’s First 3-D Printed Jaw Is Really No Big Deal

We were impressed by the world’s first 3-D printed jaw implant. But to the printing company? It’s just another day at the office.

An 83-year-old woman from the Netherlands was suffering from a chronic bone infection in her lower jaw, but traditional reconstructive surgery would be risky for a woman her age. So last June, doctors called on a 3-D printing company called Layerwise to create what would be the world’s first printed jaw transplant. Within hours of her surgery, the patient was talking. Within the week, she was home.

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But when we we wrote Layerwise about the story, Medical Applications Engineer Ruben Wauthlé almost downplayed its significance. Using a new metal printing technology, which implements a laser to melt titanium powder one layer at a time, he’s quick to clarify that Layerwise has already printed a multitude of implants, from skull plates to custom hips. One part is no more special than another.

“We can almost print any kind of shape or implant as a metal part, and this geometric freedom is also one of the many advantages of this layer-by-layer additive manufacturing technology,” Wauthlé tells Co.Design. “We can even incorporate porous structures in the implant design, to allow the bone to grow into the implant and yield a better long-term fixation of the implant.”

So while the articulated jaw implant certainly took thought to design, the very nature of 3-D printing means that one part, however impressive the implant may be for the surgical team to install and however complicated it may appear to our own eyes, is basically identical to any other shape to Layerwise. Each is constructed a layer at a time.

That’s the awesome nature of 3-D printing.

“Using our technology it doesn’t matter how complex your part is, or if the design is different for each patient, because we don’t need any expensive tooling or molding or extensive CAM programming to manufacture such an implant,” Wauthlé writes.

The most mind-bending part of this technology is its relative youth. While 3-D printing has been a workable concept for decades, the titanium printing process used by Layerwise is only about five years old. When you consider this technology alongside the career accomplishments of researcher Dr. Anthony Atala–who uses inkjet printers to produce actual organs–it’s hard not to start seeing yourself as an old car with a lot of parts on back order.

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But while immortality sounds fantastic, my Amazon Prime membership had better still cover the two-day shipping.

[Hat tip: BBC]

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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