Blog Items - Ceramic Additive Manufacturing and the Healthcare Market

By Avi Cohen, Vice President for Healthcare & Education at XJet

Ceramic additive manufacturing (AM) is a young specialty that emerged from the more mature plastic and metal AM sectors, which have been around for several decades. This fresh discipline focuses on real parts for end user applications and is now poised to transform production in the healthcare industry.

Rising Market Potential

In fact, healthcare is one of the fastest growing markets adopting 3D printing technologies today, no surprise when you understand the swift rate new medical applications are developed at. In 2014, 3D printing materials sold in healthcare alone reached revenues of $284.7 million and are estimated to grow at a faster compound annual growth rate than the rest of the industry over the coming years. Indeed, medical and dental 3D printing material sales are predicted to grow at a rate of 19.1% until 2020[1].

The healthcare market is inherently personal and consists of many applications and processes which are highly individualized or custom-made. Ceramic materials have been produced for custom processes for quite some time, but they are a rather modern development in the healthcare industry for both medical and medical device applications. Used today in surgical guides, implants, prosthetics and various medical tools and devices, ceramic materials have many unique and crucial properties.

Myriad Applications

When considering ceramic additive manufacturing in the healthcare industry, ideal applications include ear implants, CAT scans, laser surgeries, pacemakers, components for cardiology, implants for neurology, femoral head implants for hip replacements, hand tools, valves and filters, pressure sensors, X-ray tubes, and of course, dental industry applications. Ceramics are also used extensively to help diagnose ailments. Nearly every medical center and laboratory will use ceramic and glass lab ware for chemical analyses and electronic components. The scope for ceramic AM in healthcare is significant.

Whilst potential applications are almost endless, a particularly remarkable function is in implants such as alumina hip prostheses. Alumina is classified as an inert bio-ceramic because it has very low reactivity in the body, it also has a long functional life and its high strength would support stabilization of the implant, making it ideal for this use.

Zirconia – Customized parts

The use of zirconia in healthcare has expanded rapidly over the past decade, driven by its advantageous physical, biological, aesthetic, and corrosion properties. Zirconia ceramic is characterized by its extreme high strength, even more so than other advanced ceramic materials such as alumina. It has excellent resistance to chemicals and corrosion without the typical brittleness common in technical ceramics. Other principal properties of this material include high fracture toughness, high density, high hardness and wear resistance, superb frictional behavior, high temperature capability up to 2,400ºC, non-magnetic, low thermal conductivity, electrical insulation, coefficient of thermal expansion (similar to iron) and modulus of elasticity (similar to steel). These properties have led to a new name being coined for zirconia over the years – ceramic steel.

Due to its strong resilience, zirconia has been applied to medical parts that typically generate sufficient wear, such as customized parts for hip replacements. Zirconia orthopedic hip replacements have shown superior wear-resistance over other systems. Zirconia has also been widely adopted for endosseous implants, implant abutments, and all-ceramic Crowns & Bridges. Additionally, due to an increasing demand for aesthetically pleasing dental restorations, zirconia-based ceramic restorations have become one of the dominant restorative choices.

A New Era for Ceramic Manufacturing

It is clear that ceramics additive manufacturing has huge possibilities and scope within the medical industry and there is consequently much interest in the new technologies that are emerging to support this. One such technology is NanoParticle Jetting Technology (NPJ), developed by XJet. This breakthrough technology, different from other additive manufacturing processes such as stereolithography, DLP and binder jetting, allows manufacturers to produce zirconia parts with the ease and versatility of inkjet printing. The result is high quality ceramic parts with smooth surfaces, superfine details, high density and excellent dimensional tolerance. This is achieved using the dispersion of nano-sized ceramic particles which are suspended in a liquid formula and jetted from inkjet nozzles building very thin layers. The various shapes and sizes of these nanoparticles allow for natural packing and high density, resulting in strong, tough and hard ceramic parts. The use of a different material for support structures, a material that is removed after part creation completion, enables super easy path for creation of very complex geometries with cavities, overhangs, tiny features and details.

The accuracy afforded by NPJ technology produces parts with excellent shape and dimensional tolerance meaning less machining is required in the green stages, further reducing costs and timescales. Using its proprietary NPJ technology, XJet recently launched two AM Systems for ceramics manufacturers, the Carmel 1400 and the Carmel 700. This ground-breaking technology ensures the whole process offers operational advantages as it is productive, efficient, safe and simple to use, marking an exciting new phase for ceramic additive manufacturing.

A transformation is taking place

The potential of ceramic AM in the healthcare industry is clearly vast. The readiness of the technology, the size of the potential market, the variety of applications, the advantages afforded to users – all point to a transformation in the industry. Having already adopted plastic and metal additive manufacturing, the healthcare industry is now starting an exciting journey into additive manufacturing with technical ceramics.

Example of a drill printed in zirconia by XJet

The drill, similar to those used in medical applications, includes 2400 holes with a diameter of 190 microns each and facilitates the ability to cool and wash with water during drilling

Small clips printed in zirconia by XJet – for medical device grips

Medical ceramic mesh filter, with micron-sized holes – fabricated by XJet

 

[1] 3D Printing in Healthcare Market: Role and Opportunities by Insight Pharma Report

 

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