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3D Printing Improves Surgery – An interview with Joakim Lindhardt

3D Printing Improves Surgery – An interview with Joakim Lindhardt

3D-printed anatomic heart in plastic

One advantage of 3D printing is repeated time after time and in very different contexts, the high level of customization! While consumer products are increasingly customized to meet new demands, we have found one profession in which customization isn’t a demand but a condition – surgery. How can 3D technology improve surgery? What tools are possible to 3D print? It turns out that Aarhus University Hospital has established a 3D print centre – the first of its kind in Denmark. Joakim Lindhardt,  Engineer and Manager of the 3D Centre at Aarhus University Hospital has been so kind as to help us clarify some of these questions!

How do you use 3D printing at Aarhus University Hospital?

We use 3D printers to visualize patients’ anatomy in 3D scans. When the scans are ready, we can print 3D models of patients’ injuries and conditions – no matter if it is a fracture or a tumour. Having an actual model is a great advantage for doctors, particularly for surgeons. A 3D printed model increases surgeons’ understanding of their patient’s anatomy, and it allows them to use a pen to draw intuitively on the model when deciding on the course of action of the surgery. It also makes it easier for the patient to understand the extent of the fracture, tumour, or whatever is wrong with the patient.

Another advantage of 3D scanning and printing is that surgeons can plan and ‘perform’ the surgery virtually. That enables us, engineers, to 3D print a “postoperative model” of the injury, which in turn allows the surgeons to evaluate the result before even having performed any real surgery! To ensure the best possible correspondence between the virtual planning and the actual surgery, patient-specific save guides and re-positioning guides are designed based on the virtual surgery and postoperative model. 

Using 3D print at AUH and in healthcare sector generally, is not new. The technology has been applied for a long time, particularly within jaw surgery, orthopaedic surgery, and cardiology. The remarkable thing about AUH is that we have established a centre for 3D print, which – potentially, is going to supply all departments in the hospital with 3D prints. By uniting the hospital’s competences in 3D printing in one centre, we maximize knowledge sharing and expertise. At the same time, the costs associated with printers and software are decreased. So for us, the centre is a great benefit, as more effective knowledge sharing means that we only have to reinvent the wheel once. 

When the scans are ready, we can print 3D models of patients’ injuries – no matter whether the injury is a fracture or a tumour.

How do you combine different academic skills and competences at the 3D print centre?

Engineers and doctors work extremely close. Surgeons need to understand what possibilities 3D scan and print offer to realize its potential and we as engineers must have an understanding of the surgical procedure in order to be able to design helpful tools. If we don’t understand the procedure, we would probably develop useless tools. So in reality, it must be the engineers who adapt to the medical reality. To ensure we do so, we often visit the operating room to gain firsthand knowledge and experience. 

3D printed blood vessel. Credit: Shutterstock. 
Have you received any interest in your 3D centre from the private sector?

Yes, private companies have shown significant interest in what we are doing. Among others, Damvig Development and The Danish Technological Institute have reached out to us. Here at AUH, we have a number of 3D printers. Still, future partnerships with industrial 3D stakeholders would open new possibilities for what is possible to do with 3D print at AUH. 

What does the future hold for 3D printing in healthcare?

3D print has enormous potential within the healthcare industry! We already see 3D printed hip and knee implants in titanium for particularly complicated injuries, where regular implants do not fit. However, it is still quite expensive to produce implants, which is why they are often produced abroad. Luckily, the technology and its usage is continuously improved, so hopefully, we will be able to produce the implants ourselves some time in the future. When we can produce implants locally in Aarhus, the lead time will decrease significantly. As a result, it will be more economically beneficial to use the technology for larger patient groups. 

Do you collaborate with students?

We have, on several occasions, had students make projects in collaboration with us. An example of a student project could be testing the mechanical qualities of patient save guides before and after sterilization to get valid data for integrity. We haven’t had collaborations with med-students yet. Still, we see a lot of potential in 3D printing “dummies” that students or younger surgeons can practice their skills on. It would allow them to get more experience before they start operating on animals or patients. We are also open to the idea of collaborating with other academic faculties. For example, it would be very interesting to get some economic calculations on the effect of applied 3D print. At the moment, we don’t have any of these kinds of measures because we don’t have the necessary competences in our 3D print centre.

Photo of 3D printed anatomical model. Credit: Shutterstock
Why do you think students should care about 3D printing?

3D printing is an exponential tool for prototyping. A physical prototype is undeniably so much better to use than a two-dimensional drawing or simply a written description. Just today, we printed a functioning prototype based on an idea we got late last night. Prototyping with 3D print is unbelievably fast, and I think students can benefit a lot from this if they are experimenting with projects of their own. 

Do you have any advice for how students can enter the 3D-printing industry within healthcare?

My advice would be to get a relevant student job. The experience you get from working with the technology is precious for future employers. I graduated from Aarhus University in January 2018. However, while I was still studying, I was working as a student assistant in the university’s Department of Engineering in their 3D lab. I educated other students in 3D print and assisted on building and maintaining the lab’s 3D printers. From this position, I got competencies that made me able to assist in transforming the 3D print centre at AUH from a pilot project to reality. 

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