3D Printed Ultrasound – a glimpse into the future?

Credit: The Noun Project

Ever since the invention of 3D printers, industries all over the world have utilized it to advance their work. Science, art, education – you name it. The field of medicine has been involved no less. So much so, that it uses 3D printing now to print babies – for medical and diagnostic reasons of course. 3D printed ultrasound is not a crazy science experiment but is considered a tried and tested medical milestone.

What is 3D printed ultrasound?

3D-printed ultrasound is the process of printing a physical model of an unborn child using 3D ultrasound data. Specifically, the term “3D ultrasound” is the rendering of the physical volume of ultrasound data using an ultrasonic imaging device. In this case, the ultrasound data is the fetus.

This data is used to make a digital 3D file, which is then sent to a 3D printer to print. The face of the fetus, certain body parts, or the entire body can be printed.

How does 3D printed ultrasound work?

A sonographer takes the 3D ultrasound data of the baby using either one of these methods –

  • Freehand scanning with a probe
  • Mechanical scanning using a motor probe
  • An endo probe
  • A Matrix array transducer

The data collected using these ultrasonic scanning techniques are then used to generate a 3D file using 3D software.

What is the printing process of 3D printed ultrasound?

To print 3D ultrasound, a decent 3D printer suffices. The printer software reads and prints the 3D file, previously generated. Everything before the printing process requires human expertise in ultrasonic devices, 3D software, and 3D printing technology. After the file is sent to the printer, the rest is taken care of by the printer itself.

PLA or ABS are the usual choices for the printed model, although a wide variety of materials can be used. It all depends on the type of material that the 3D printer can print.

The current scope of 3D printed ultrasound

3D printed ultrasound is offered by several private companies from around the world. However, it is not yet recognized as much. Primarily, because the technology is fresh and hasn’t been picked up by mass media and governments. Secondly, because the concept of getting to physically feel a baby before birth, is uncomfortable to many.

Benefits and limitations of 3D printed ultrasound

Despite its limited popularity, 3D ultrasound printing technology has a wide number of benefits and only one alleged disadvantage.

Pro – Medical and Surgical preparation

For medical staff and professionals in fetal and neonatal care, 3D printed ultrasound models serve as incredible learning and teaching tools. These models can be used to help prepare and guide surgical correction for cardiac anomalies or craniofacial disorders in the fetus. Training with these 3D models is becoming common in a few medical institutions, as 3D printing is quite cost-effective nowadays.

Pro – Parent-doctor communication and the parent-child bond

3D printed ultrasound had been first popularized as means for blind parents to understand the sensation of touching their baby before birth. This major advantage of 3D printed ultrasounds resurfaced lately in an article published in the Washington Post about a blind mother from Maryland who got a 3D model of her pre-borne baby. “I was a little bit nervous about opening the box,” she said in an interview to the paper, “I had never seen a 3D image, and now, it’s your baby, and it’s, like, wow”.

But that’s not the only advantage. a study even claims that it may help parents bond better with the baby. Additionally, it helps medical professionals to communicate fetal complications to the patients, by pinpointing the exact areas for surgery. This helps parents better understand the surgical procedure involved and feel safer to make informed decisions about their child.

Con – Model Precision

Although the ultrasound data is incredibly precise, there still may be a tiny margin for error. This is not a concern for personal purposes, but for medical surgeries, errors cannot be accepted. Hence, surgeons and medical professionals use 3D-printed ultrasound as a mere training guide.

The precision has not proven to be an issue as of yet, and as days go by, ultrasound imaging technology is becoming more accurate. Thus, the one disadvantage of 3D-printed ultrasound may not even exist a few years from now.

What holds the future for 3D printed ultrasound?

The benefits of 3D-printed ultrasound for researchers, doctors, and hospitals are quite apparent. However, to what extent will this service be advanced and commercialized, we have yet to know. For the time being, it can be said with certainty, that 3D printed ultrasound is a creative and innovative solution for the present and potentially the future of fetal and neonatal care.

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