The print run

Growing market for 3D technology in China, but local producers lag behind

Xiaocheng, 6, whose left hand was partially amputated after a car accident when he was 4, grabs a box of yoghurt with a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, at a hospital in Wuhan

Xiao Cheng and Amina Khan are two of the modern wonders of medicine, thanks to advances in 3D printing.

Xiao is a six year-old boy from Henan province who lost his hand in a traffic accident two years ago. His family could not afford the $16,500 it would cost to fit him with a prosthetic hand. To mark World Children’s Day on June 1, Wuhan University Hospital printed him a new one at a cost of about $160.

Xiao told reporters he is calling it the ‘Transformers’ hand, in tribute to his favourite film.

In Xinjiang, three year-old Amina Khan was born with a cleft palate and a fused jaw. Surgeons at Guangzhou Women’s and Children’s Medical Centre mapped her features with a digital scanner and then used 3D printers to create a life-sized model of her face, which helped them to work out how to treat the problem best.

She can now eat properly for the first time.

Likewise, surgeons at Shanghai’s Fudan University Children’s Hospital have used 3D printers to create an anatomically correct model of two newborn conjoined twins. This also allowed them to perform a dry run of a complex and potentially life-threatening operation.

Within the next decade scientists forecast that they will not only be able to create physical models and orthopedic implants using 3D printing but living organs such as livers and kidneys as well. American company Organovo has already printed out liver tissue using ink made from cells. It believes it will be able to repair damaged organs with 3D printed parts in the next five years with a technique called bio printing.

In its Made in China 2025 report, the Chinese government flagged bio-pharmaceuticals and high performance medical appliances as two key areas for development. Earlier this year, it also released its plan for the development of a domestic Additive Manufacturing industry – the technical term for 3D printing that creates physical objects with thin layers of plastic or metal from digital models.

Industries requiring customised or complex parts are set to be the biggest beneficiaries of 3D printing. In 2014, healthcare and dentistry led the way, accounting for 27% of end demand. For example, a 3D printer can create 450 dental crowns a day, 10 times more than a human technician. A report from Chuancai Securities estimates that the use of 3D printing in the healthcare sector has grown more than 25% annually over the past three years and is now worth around Rmb10 billion ($1.6 billion) annually.

China as a whole accounted for 8.7% of the world’s 3D printers and ranked third in terms of patents in 2014. Yet as Liu Yuan from Tsinghua University told 21CN Business Herald, its own 3D printing industry trails the West in nearly every aspect. When Fuwai Hospital in Beijing, the country’s leading cardiovascular hospital, recently adopted 3D printing to build models of their patients’ hearts, it turned to Belgian company Materialise as its technology provider.

The world’s largest 3D printing companies are both American – 3D Systems and Stratasys. Both concentrate on 3D printing using plastics. Their main competitors in fast- growing metals printing are both German – Concept Laser and EOS.

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