Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, attracted the attention of various healthcare sectors, as it has wide applications and provides beneficial results due to its extensive flexibility and customization. 3D printing is becoming more popular in veterinary medicine owing to its revolutionary ability to build a 3D model of many objects using computer-aided design (CAD) software and successfully utilizing it in animal health ranging from implants to prostheses to tissue replacements. The 3D printing market in animal medicine is therefore projected to witness considerable growth, predicted at 15.24% CAGR during the forecast period of 2023-2031. Like almost all technologies, 3D printing in veterinary medicine has its advantages and a few challenges that need consideration.
3D printing technology is rapidly growing, including in veterinary medicine, as it continues to improve and become more accessible. Veterinarians are largely utilizing 3D printing technology because of the transformative approach it offers, while the decreasing cost of printers makes it feasible to develop the most desired model easily within a relatively short period of time.
3D printing finds application in a range of animal care areas
3D printing is a promising technology used to improve animal health and life span by treating disabilities developed due to events such as accidents or other medical conditions. Given its versatility, 3D printing in veterinary medicine is used for a broad range of applications.
Animal prosthetics and orthotics
In veterinary prosthetics and orthotics, 3D printing is used mainly for the development of bone structures, complex implants, and surgical guides. One of the first cases of 3D-printed prosthetics used in an animal was noted in the USA, where Derby, the dog, was born with short forelegs and no front paws, making him unable to walk. In December 2014, with the use of 3D scanning software, Derby was equipped with 3D-printed prosthetics, allowing him to start running and walking freely. Other notable cases of successful 3D-printed prosthetics applications in animals include Romina, a whippet who lost her leg in an accident in 2016. Her leg was fitted with a 3D-printed limb by specialists at Mexico City’s Veterinary Hospital, allowing the dog to walk again.
3D printing in surgical models planning
3D printing technology is ideal for surgical model planning since it allows surgeons to examine and determine bone structures based on a visual examination as the initial stage in surgical planning. Vets can directly quantify the deformity by doing preoperative assessments, however, sometimes, visual inspection of complex bone conformation might be challenging. Furthermore, 3D printing technology in surgical planning is a useful resource to help pet owners better understand their animals’ health issues and planned treatment options.
Education and training
3D printing is one of the most practical and efficient methods for the production of exact anatomic models needed at learning and training facilities across all levels of the veterinary education system. Students can examine and practice on realistic models, gaining a better understanding of complex anatomical structures and surgical techniques. This technology enhances the learning experience and prepares future veterinarians for various scenarios. The list of universities that use 3D printing in their veterinary medicine program is long and expanding and currently includes US-based institutions such as Ohio State University, University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, North Carolina State, University of Tennessee, as well as University of Nottingham and University of Derby in the UK, Satbayev University in Kazakhstan, Indian Veterinary Research Institute and Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in India, University of Ghent in Belgium, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, University of Bern in Switzerland, University of Glasgow in Scotland, and University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria, to name a few.
3D printing implants
Implants developed using 3D printing technology are customized to enhance the quality of an animal’s life and are particularly useful in oncological cases, where massive excision requires implant structures to replace removed tissues and restore their functions. A wide range of implants has been created utilizing common biocompatible materials such as titanium and nylon, which have demonstrated a considerable success rate in a variety of complex procedures ranging from skull flap and limb replacement to tibial tuberosity advancement implants. To create medical implants, veterinarians employ powder bed fusion, a metal 3D printing method, which allows them to create implants in a variety of desirable shapes and structures.
3D-printed masks are useful and essential to cure wounds from surgery and help to recover from fractures and bone destruction. The 3D-printed mask helps animals recover from injuries without the risk of reopening a wound or dislocating their bones. In August 2017, a female black-breasted leaf turtle in Tennessee suffered a wound on one of her nostrils and was having difficulty eating. To permanently repair the damage, a 3D-printed face mask was created to cover the whole wound region without blocking eyesight or limiting her ability to move her head.
Dynamic drivers power global 3D printing market growth in animal medicine
The global 3D printing in veterinary medicine market size is expected to increase from USD 2.8 billion to USD 11 billion and is estimated to grow by 15.24% CAGR during the forecast period of 2023-2031.
The North American market is expected to be the leading market due to high animal adoption rates, increased pet expenditures, and the abundance of veterinary facilities and clinics in the region. The European market is expected to be the second most prominent, with an increase in the number of experienced veterinarians and R&D investment, particularly in animal health, factors that are likely to drive market expansion. The Asia Pacific market is experiencing a moderate growth rate and is expected to continue showing promising growth in the coming years. This can be attributed to the increasing trend of pet adoption, particularly in countries such as Japan and Australia, where owning a pet is viewed as a symbol of social status. Australia has the highest pet ownership rate in the world, with 63% of the population owning a pet.
The major growth factors that are globally boosting 3D printing in veterinary medicine include wide applications in animal care as the technology enables the creation of patient-specific solutions and a cost-effective approach that varies from a few hundred to around a thousand dollars, which is less than traditional manufacturing methods for veterinary implants. Rapid prototyping is another major growth driver for 3D printing since it allows veterinarians and researchers to quickly prototype and test ideas, resulting in more efficient development procedures. 3D printing also improves patient outcomes by providing personalized solutions that result in better-fitting prosthetics, implants, and devices, which can improve an animal’s quality of life and overall health.
Extensive R&D efforts contribute to the market players’ growth
The global 3D printing market in veterinary medicine is competitive and includes a diverse range of established and startup companies that are actively contributing to advancements in veterinary care. Among the companies providing 3D printing solutions in animal medicine, some of the few leading players include Formlabs, Materialise, Med Dimensions, VET 3D, BTech Innovation, M3D ILAB, DeiveDesign, and Cabiomede. Given the relatively early stage of development that the market is currently at, it is not surprising that R&D plays a vital role in most players’ operations and growth. Many players work toward offering more comprehensive solutions to end-user entities through strategic agreements, partnerships, and acquisitions.
3D Systems Corporation, headquartered in the USA, is considered the leading manufacturing company in this market. It provides medical and dental solutions, as well as veterinary applications. 3D Systems provides a diverse array of products and services that have been used to produce anatomical models, implants, prosthetics, and surgical guides for animals. The company uses various 3D printing technologies such as film-transfer imaging, SLA, SLS, and direct metal printing. It outsources certain printer assembly, printer production, and refurbishment activities to selected organizations and suppliers. With the advancing technological changes in 3D printing, the company claims to have been focusing on ongoing R&D programs to develop new and enhance existing printers and printing materials.
Another market leader is Stratasys, an American-Israeli manufacturer with a global presence in the 3D printing industry for animal medicine. The company offers a range of 3D printing solutions, including 3D printers, materials, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and PolyJet technologies. These technologies have been effectively utilized in veterinary medicine to create patient-specific models and surgical guidance for preoperative planning. Stratasys is another player that claims to put investment in R&D to the forefront, to broaden its capabilities and offerings in the veterinary field. The company collaborates with hospitals and universities, such as Colorado State University’s veterinary hospital and AniCura, a European network of animal hospitals and clinics, to advance the use of 3D printing in animal care and creating patient-specific implants. They have been actively integrating this technology into their veterinary practices.
Materialise is a provider of 3D printing software solutions and complex 3D plastic printing services for animal medicine. It employs technologies such as FDM, Multi-Jet Modeling (MJM), and vacuum casting. The company provides custom implants, 3D visualization, and orthotics surgical solutions. Materialize supplies to veterinary research institutes, hospitals, and major medical device manufacturing companies. The company’s software section offers software-based applications and related technology, such as CAD packages and 3D scanners. It has a strong presence in the Americas and offers worldwide coverage to its clients.
Another two companies worth mentioning are VetCT and Wimba. VetCT, a US-based company, specializes in veterinary imaging and has developed expertise in producing 3D reconstructions from a variety of imaging modalities. The company provides 3D modeling and printing services to veterinarians to improve treatment knowledge and planning. Wimba, headquartered in Poland, provides a variety of personalized animal 3D and 4D printed orthopedics items by applying unique measuring techniques and specialized software, resulting in products that are more durable and lightweight.
All these players in the 3D printing market for animal care continue to develop and advance in their specialized product offerings. It can be expected that this specialization will continue and deepen, with the companies trying to carve a unique niche for themselves, especially as the competitiveness in the market is likely to intensify.
A range of challenges continues to put a brake on 3D printing’s mainstream use
3D printing technology has made remarkable advancements in animal medicine, offering immense potential to transform veterinary practices. However, several challenges must be overcome before 3D printing may successfully become main stream in animal treatment.
One of the significant barriers to the adoption of 3D printing technology in clinical practice is its time-consuming nature. The process of creating a replica model and the printing itself are all complicated procedures that can take anywhere from three days to several weeks. This can be a significant challenge for veterinarians who need to provide prompt and effective treatment for their patients.
Creating precise 3D models for printing often relies on medical imaging techniques such as CT scans or MRIs. However, generating high-quality images of animals, especially exotic and small species, can be challenging. Movement during scanning, anesthesia risks, and imaging artifacts can affect the quality of the 3D model. This can lead to inaccuracies in the printed model, leading to ineffective treatment and potential harm to the animal.
The integration of 3D printing into the existing veterinary medicine process presents a significant challenge. The use of 3D printing technology involves a multi-step process, including imaging, model generation, and printing to create anatomical models. Coordination between veterinarians, radiologists, and 3D printing experts is essential to ensure that the process runs smoothly.
The selection of appropriate materials, such as plastics, living cells, titanium, resins, glass, nylon, and metals, is critical for 3D printing in animal medicine, as the availability of materials that offer the required properties, such as biocompatibility and durability for model development is limited and not all materials can be temperature controlled enough to allow 3D printing. Furthermore, many of these printing materials cannot be recycled and are quite unsafe.
The field of animal medicine has greatly benefited from the advancements in 3D printing technology, particularly in the development of personalized implants and prosthetics. However, the diverse anatomies of animals present unique challenges in designing and printing these specialized products. Animals vary greatly in size, shape, and structure, which makes it more complex to create products that fit well and function optimally. This requires specialized skills and software tools such as CAD, as well as a deep understanding of animal anatomy.
In addition to the design and implementation challenges, regulatory authorization is required for the use of 3D-printed products and implants in animal medicine, which includes approval or clearance process, clinical data, post-market surveillance, international harmonization, labeling, and instructions. The safety and efficacy of these products must be thoroughly tested and verified before they can be used in clinical settings.
Furthermore, ethical concerns about the use of animals in medical research must be addressed. It is important to ensure that the use of 3D-printed products and implants does not cause harm or unnecessary suffering to animals. Ensuring the long-term biocompatibility of 3D-printed implants and prosthetics in animals also requires thorough testing and monitoring. Animals have distinct physiological reactions and potential differences in healing processes that must be considered. The use of 3D-printed products must be carefully evaluated to ensure that they do not cause adverse effects or complications
3D printing technology has emerged as a promising area in veterinary medicine, providing customized solutions for a wide range of animal health issues. Despite facing some challenges, the technology’s ongoing advancements and increased accessibility are expected to drive significant growth in the market in the future.
With its ability to fabricate precise, patient-specific implants, prostheses, and tissue replacements, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize veterinary medicine, enhancing outcomes and improving the quality of life for animals. Incorporating 3D printing into animal medicine requires collaboration among veterinary doctors, imaging specialists, 3D printing experts, regulatory authorities, and ethicists.
Nevertheless, there is still a significant amount of work to be done, and addressing these challenges will require substantial effort, innovative solutions, and thoughtful consideration. This is a dynamic and promising field that beckons thorough exploration, continued innovation, and the unwavering commitment of professionals to enhance the global standard of animal care. While the full extent of 3D printing’s impact on veterinary medicine remains to be seen as research and development continue, the initial outcomes are undoubtedly encouraging.