3D printing precise titanium parts to replace bone for reconstructive surgery

Doctor Lantieri does more than mend broken bones; he tries to help his patients look as close to normal as possible. In the past, he spent long hours in the operating room, opening hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of generic plates, casts and screws, searching for the best fit for patients. Despite his painstaking work, he often felt frustrated because of the off-the-shelf parts he had to use: “Before we were just guessing, trying to do it with the CT scan and using standard material … it was complicated, we never had the correct, perfect shape.”

That’s starting to change. Today, when Lantieri heads into the OR, he has a customized repair kit tricked out with titanium plates that are exact replicas of the patient’s own bones and screws that have been hand-fitted to secure existing bones to the new replacement parts.


Top and above: Belgian additive manufacturing and design company Materialise uses a virtual 3D model of the patient’s face, based on a CT scan, as a guide to build patient-specific implants to replace damaged bones. Images credit: Materialise.

Materialise uses Concept Laser 3D-printing machines to “print” the new implants — first as a prototype that Lantieri can measure against a 3D model of the skull to ensure a perfect fit, and then as the final product.

“In the past, I was just guessing,” Lantieri says. “We never had the correct shape. But using 3D-printed skulls — to have them in my own hands — to determine what are the difficulties, where are the impediments in advance, it makes a huge difference.”

The 3D printers build the parts from titanium powder. Lasers melt the powder and shape it into each patient’s one-of-a-kind “bone.” No matter how jagged the edge of the remaining bone is, the printer can make an exact match. Some replacement pieces are extraordinarily complex, such as those made to replace bones ravaged by disease. Because the pieces are going into human bodies, they need to be flawless.

“We are trying to be as close as possible to the original face,” Lantieri says. “We’re trying to give back normalcy to the patient.”

Concept Laser’s LaserCUSING machines use multiple lasers, which enable them to print faster and more cost-effectively than other 3D printers.

Last year, GE acquired a controlling stake in Concept Laser, and the company is now part of GE Additive, a new business dedicated to supplying 3D printers, materials and engineering consulting services.

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