6 Questions with Fried Vancraen, a pioneer who is reshaping the future of Orthopedics with 3D Printing
This is the fifth in a series of the 6-Question interviews with the leaders who are challenging conventional thinking in Orthopedics. (read other interviews here)
I have followed Materialise since the 1990’s. Materialise has been helping orthopedic surgeons solve problems for decades – first with understanding complex anatomy, then with patient-specific instrumentation and now with patient-specific implants. Think of joint arthroplasty with a lot size of “one”. Think mass customization.
Fried Vancraen leads this disruptive technology in Orthopedics at the company that he founded. I sat down with Fried and asked him a few questions.
1. Materialise has been innovating in many industries for 25 years. What was the genesis of the Materialise entry into orthopedics? Take us back.
Fried: In order to explain Materialise’s move into orthopedics, I actually need to go back to before I even knew about 3D Printing or could imagine starting a company specialized in the technology. It was actually while I was studying engineering in Leuven that I first encountered biomechanics and orthopedic applications. So, when I saw my first 3D Printer back in 1989, it was this knowledge that helped me envision the medical applications that 3d printing could possibly enable. In fact, it was the possibility to make these medical applications a reality that, in part, motivated me to take the big leap and start Materialise – and as a young father, this was not a decision to take lightly. People are often shocked to find out that my wife Hilde and I put all that we had into the business. In fact, the day after we bought out first 3D printer, we no longer had enough money in our account to buy a loaf of bread. However, we were convinced that starting Materialise was a risk worth taking. I should add that Hilde is also an engineer, specializing in biotechnology, and today she is the executive vice president of our entire medical segment.
Picture: Fried Vancraen with an early 3D printed anatomical model of a skull
Our first challenge back in the early nineties was to successfully and accurately reproduce human anatomy. Once this was accomplished, 3d Printing already started proving its relevance for very complex operations. Anatomical models were printed that aided in the planning for operations to separate conjoined twins, for complex facial reconstructions, and for treating complicated congenital deformations. With the added-value proven in our early years, we then started thinking about how we could use the technology to reach even more people and help treat even more patients.
2. What orthopedic applications do your customers need today?
Fried: Before I go into the applications, I want to quickly mention that for Materialise’s opening reception 25 years ago, I wrote a mission statement for the company that remains unchanged to this day. The essence of that mission is that we would use our knowledge and technology for a better and healthier world. And it is this mission that has pushed us to never stop exploring and to never stop trying to develop useful applications, such as those now being used by our orthopedic customers.
To be honest, it sometimes took a while before the technology was ready to realize some of our ideas, but advances in 3D Printing finally reached the point where surgical instrumentation could be printed. To start with, we used these technological advances to innovate in the domain of knee surgery with 3D-printed, patient-specific guides and launched our solution in 2007. This guide technology has since expanded to a variety of other joints, such as the hip, shoulder, and wrist, as well being useful for complex bone osteotomies.
Picture: Patient-specific knee guide total knee arthroplasty (TKA) Biomet
Further developments in metal 3D printing, especially in titanium, has brought with it the opportunity to design and print a variety of implants as well. 3D Printing is especially interesting for the manufacturing of implants because it allows for shapes and surfaces structures that more closely match the human anatomy, and are in fact impossible to produce in any other way, at least none that I know of.
Picture: Patient-specific titanium hip revision implant – Mobelife, a Materialise company
3. What is the process of creating a 3D solution?
Fried: The process starts with an individual patient’s medical image data. In the early 90’s, we began developing software to convert MRI and CT data into virtual anatomical models that could then be used for further testing, engineering, and of course, for printing. The resulting suite of software solutions is used by medical device companies, research centers, and hospitals worldwide. And for surgeons, Materialise has a growing team of clinical engineers who work closely with surgeons and use our software solutions to collaboratively plan procedures. They then design and print the patient-specific guides that turn the planning into reality in the OR.
While 3D printing is able to add value in an economically viable manner for standard implants and instruments, it gets exciting when you look at this technology’s potential to produce patient-specific devices at the cost of a standard device. With the right systems in place, devices can be designed for a better fit to the patient’s unique morphology than ever before.
4. How can the technology scale for all orthopedic patients?
Fried: I am personally convinced that the benefits of 3D printing are so significant that it will become the technology of choice for the manufacturing of many medical devices. For example, implants 3D printed in titanium have the potential to deliver a higher functionality at a lower cost than the standard implants currently on the market.
5. What are some challenges preventing the wider scale adoption of 3D printing in orthopedics?
Fried: At this moment, the biggest impediment to wider scale adoption of this technology is that in hospitals and in the medical device industry, the standard logistics and manufacturing work flows aren’t adapted to make this method of manufacturing cost effective. As new medical image based devices are developed and process flows, such as those provided by Materialise Mimics Innovation Suite, are adopted, I believe that this impediment will be overcome.
6. Where do you see of 3D printing in Orthopedics in the next 10 years?
Fried: Orthopedics is one sector where I believe that 3D Printing will not just be A production technology, but THE production technology of choice. I envision 3D printing happening in a distributed environment, with printers in hospitals for the manufacturing of show-and-tell models that enable insight into complex cases and improved communication with the various stakeholders involved, including the patient. 3D printers will also be present in dedicated manufacturing environments managed by medical device companies. These will be present in the different countries and regions in which these companies operate – reducing costs of both inventory and logistics.
For more information about Materialise, visit www.materialise.com