New 3D-printing method could revolutionize manufacture of silicone-based medical implantables

A 3D-printing technique developed by researchers at the University of Florida (UF; Gainesville) reportedly can produce stronger and less costly silicone-based medical implantable products faster than current methods. A paper published yesterday in Science Advances describes the process, which could be applied to the manufacture of medical devices such as catheters, balloons, surgical drainage ports and meshes.

Currently, many of these parts need to be injection molded, which can take days or weeks to produce patient-specific implantables. On-demand 3D printing slashes the production time and costs involved. Moreover, the technology allows the design and single-step manufacture of devices that otherwise would require assembly. The video below shows one such device: A 3D-printed silicone pump with encapsulated ball valves pumping water between two reservoirs.

“Our new [oily microgel] material provides support for the liquid silicone as it is 3D printing, allowing us to create very complex structures and even encapsulated parts out of silicone elastomer,” said Christopher O’Bryan, a mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and lead author of the paper.

It also could pave the way for therapeutic devices that encapsulate and control the release of drugs or small molecules for guiding tissue regeneration or assisting diseased organs, such as the pancreas or prostate, notes a press release on the UF website.

Find out what’s new and what’s coming in 3D printing at the 3D Printing Summit at this year’s PLASTEC East event in New York City in June. Go to the PLASTEC East website to learn more about the event and to register to attend.
The technology supporting this application came out of research that team member Tommy Angelini, Associate Professor of mechanical and aerospace, was pursuing in 3D printing organs and transplants.

They achieved a breakthrough a couple of years ago, when Angelini’s team started using oil-based microgels instead of hydrogels as a medium. The water-based gel materials were not compatible with silicone—it was literally like trying to mix oil and water. “Once we started printing oily silicone inks into the oily microgel materials, the printed parts held their shapes,” Angelini said. “We were able to achieve really excellent 3D-printed silicone parts—the best I’ve seen.”

Angelini and his team are continuing their research into 3D printing organs and tissues, with the full knowledge that it will be many years before that technology comes to fruition. In the meantime, they are elated to see the technology applied to the fabrication of medical products that could benefit patients in a much shorter time frame.