It’s increasingly easy to be cynical about 3-D printing, as a recent Newsweek story on the industry’s disappointments shows all too well. But once you look past the supposedly revolutionary promise of the technology, there are small, meaningful stories about it that are worth telling. One such story comes from Shirley Anderson, a cancer survivor who received a prosthetic jaw thanks to advances in 3-D modeling.
Anderson lost his jaw and Adam’s apple to a series of surgeries and other cancer treatments, leaving him unable to speak or eat solid food. He eventually met Travis Bellicchi, a maxillofacial prosthodontist based at Indiana University. Though Bellicchi was able to make a complex traditional prosthesis for Anderson, the final product was uncomfortable, and Anderson could wear it for a few hours at a time.
In an attempt to find a more comfortable solution, Bellicchi turned to students at the university’s School of Information and Computing who were able to more painlessly create a model of Anderson’s face. According to a blog post from Formlabs—which makes the printer Bellicchi and his collaborators used—the resulting prosthesis “looks more realistic and is much lighter and more breathable so that Shirley feels comfortable wearing it for a longer period of time.”
There are, of course, caveats: The 3-D printed prostheses cannot replace what Anderson lost to his cancer treatments. He still mostly communicates by writing on a white board, for example, and it doesn’t sound like eating has gotten any easier. Nevertheless, it’s a significant reminder that 3-D printing can be a powerful resource, so long as we remember that the advancements it offers are mostly incremental.