You've probably seen the adorable story of Derby the dog, who was born disabled but received some incredible 3D printed prosthetic legs that allowed him to run again. The story went viral in late 2014 and, in many ways, changed how the world looked at the potential for 3D printing.
After all, when our beloved pups are involved, we begin to take things pretty seriously.
Little did the world know that 3D Systems, who made those prosthetics, had another advancement for dogs in the works. The 3D printing company partnered with Rita Leibinger Medical to create and print metal orthopedic knee implants to fix a very common, but difficult problem of injuries in dogs' hind leg ligaments, often caused by trauma, degeneration, or genetics.
"With this implant we experienced faster, more successful surgery and a faster recovery period," Rita Leibinger, owner and founder of Rita Leibinger Medical, said in a press release.
To date, 3D Systems has made more than 10,000 of the implants, allowing the dogs to walk about six weeks after surgery, and it has made the process much more efficient for veterinarians as well.
The partnership between 3D Systems and Rita Leibinger Medical, which is headquartered in Germany, started in 2012. Peter Mercelis, technology and application developer manager at 3D Systems, said that Rita Leibinger Medical immediately realized the possibilities of 3D printing and started to work on improvement of the classic TTA (Tibial Tuberosity Advancement) implants and procedure to create TTA Rapid Implants 2. By reorganizing the bone force and making the knee more stable, the implant can fix the problem without the vet needing to repair the ligament.
The classic TTA surgical procedure involved the use of a large fixation plate, which is now obsolete because of the new developments in this technology. The titanium implant has an open structure that promotes rapid bone ingrowth, as well as less of a risk of infection.
The new implants were developed by a small team of engineers from both companies. They went through about four design iterations "to improve the ease of the surgical procedure, the long term bone-ingrowth, and the appearance and the manufacturing costs," Mercelis said.
Because 3D printing has such short lead times, those iterations could be done on a short-term basis, and sometimes in parallel. Dr. Yves Samoy, from Ghent University in Belgium, perfected the surgical procedure, and worked with 3D Systems' manufacturing facility in Belgium to scale up the prototyping.
Of course, dogs aren't the best at being patient and resting when they need to. So, every time one can get back to full speed after surgery, it's considered a success story.
"The dog owners and even the vets are really surprised to see the dogs recover this fast from an orthopedic surgical procedure," Mercelis said.
Although much smaller than human healthcare, the animal healthcare market is a multi-billion dollar industry — and implant costs make up a huge portion of that. With 3D printing, the total cost of the procedure is reduced, and even better, it is also less invasive.
The TTA Rapid Implants 2 will also be more widely available, and the two companies are working on scaling them down for smaller dogs and cats, too. They are also working on other implants, which will become commercially available soon.
"The complex geometries, large size and weight differences of the patients are all in favor of 3D printing technology," Mercelis said. "3D Systems and Rita Leibinger Medical are currently already working on the next success stories, by developing several spinal implants."
Because we can all always use more dog videos in our lives, check out 3D Systems' short video showcasing the 10,000 happy dogs that have benefitted from this new implant.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.