Since 1992, I have watched with great interest the development of 3D printing. When I first read about the concept at the dawn of the Internet, I was fascinated with the futuristic example of downloading the digital design for a replacement part for a sailboat in the middle of the ocean, and printing the part thousands of miles from port. It took a while for the technology and economic feasibility to catch up with the idea. Now my nephew in New York City is doing very well selling industrial 3D printers to companies around the world. This week a 3D printer was delivered to the International Space Station in order to demonstrate the feasibility of printing spare parts for spacecraft, not just in earth orbit but on future voyages to Mars and beyond.

In the medical context, doctors and scientists have worked to implement custom-printed materials into the medical world for the past several years we have seen for a while 3D printing of artificial hands and other bony structures.

The first spinal procedure using a 3D-printed vertebra replaced the second vertebra in a 12 year old boy’s neck. The boy had cancer, which was discovered after a traumatic soccer injury. After the procedure, the patient’s head was framed with pins and will remain that way for three months. Dr. Liu Zhongjun, the surgeon who performed the procedure, said the customized 3D printing technology made the disc replacement stronger and more convenient than other procedureNow comes new of another big advancement has come in recent weeks. Surgeons in China performed the first spinal disc replacement implanting a three-dimensional printed vertebra, according to a CNTV report.

The 3D printing technology uses digital models of a patient’s anatomy to construct a “printed”, customizable implant made out of almost any material. While 3D printing isn’t exactly new, using 3D printing to create an orthopedic device could make these expensive items more readily available for the general public.

In June, French spine surgeon Vincent Fiere, MD, performed the first spine surgery using spine device company Medicrea’s customized spine cages created with a 3D printer. The company’s UniD ALIF customized cage is made with polyetherketoneketone and printed to reproduce the anatomical details of the patient’s vertebral plates. When the procedure was performed, the 3D printing technology and applications were still patent-pending.

It has been estimated that the 3D printing market for healthcare alone with generate more than $4 billion by 2018, according to Information Week.  The 3D printed medical costs models could also reduce surgical time, which is significant when average surgery costs $100 per minute.

Bigger medical device companies are also getting into the 3D printing game. Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy Synthes recently partnered with Tissue Regeneration Systems to develop 3D printing technologies as part of Johnson & Johnson’s long-term strategy to grow the company. The partners are working on implants for the large bone segmental defect treatment in trauma and orthopedic oncology. Johnson & Johnson is also putting more funding behind research and development collaborations after investing nearly $1.8 billion in research and development last year.

In a healthcare market that prizes quality outcomes for lower costs, technology such as computer navigation comes with a high price tag whereas 3D printing could become a relatively economical investment. However, it will still be awhile until we can expect hospitals across the nation to house something like a 3D printer capable of printing medical devices.

Most hospitals don’t currently have the technology or the staff to be able to implement this new type of technology. Even advancements with the most promising clinical outcomes take years to really become the standard of care.

Ken Shigley is an Atlanta-based personal injury and wrongful death trial lawyer. He is past president of the State Bar of Georgia, chair-elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.