One of the greater rewards of this business is the way it helps to keep you in the world. You are exposed to all manner of new businesses and technologies, a torrent of new ideas, the social changes they bring, and what the future could look like. Which sometimes looks rather appalling, but at least you can't say you weren't warned. Recently, listening to a business podcast, I was made aware of a technique utilizing 3D printing as a means to cure one of the most complex medical problems faced by surgeons today: removing tumors, some of which are fiendishly difficult to remove, wrapped around a part of the brain, or the spinal cord. This particular story involved a toddler.
Since tumors start small and undetectable at first, they grow and wrap themselves around the part of the body in ways that make removing them time consuming and even dangerous. "Vascularization" can be a big problem: The tumor can get so entangled with blood vessels, attempting to operate may be life threatening. Up until now, surgeons had to go in and just operate, and hope for the best results with the image technology at hand. But images made from a 3D tomograpy scan, can now be used to make precise plastic 3D copies of the tumor, including the model of the brain or spine it is attached to. The surgeons can then practice removing the tumor, as many times as they like, over and over again. The 3D printer will make as many copies as needed, and at very low cost. Surgeons can experiment with as many methods as they like. Once a surgeon has gained proficiency in removing the tumor, and is familiarized with the details of the procedure, the operation can proceed with few surprises. The surgeon begins to operate, and sees a familiar sight: what he or she has been practicing on. Not only does this aid in getting all or more of the tumor out, the procedure itself takes far less time thanks to the practice the surgeon has had. Less time in surgery generally leads to better outcomes.
There are other uses for this in medicine as well. Not only can the printed tumors be used for practice, it also allows them to be studied for research, and training. Artificial prosthetics, replacement ear cartilage, custom made implants, all sorts of ideas are being tested and used. 3D also has implications for manufacturing, too. Imagine you run an auto repair shop, and instead of risking being out of a part, or having to tie up money in inventory, you could simply “print” the air intake hose, distributor cap, or bracket you needed in house, on demand, from a database of stored images. That could disrupt all we know about supply chain methods as they've existed for years.
So then. Can you make oodles of money on the companies that make these printers? Is this the wave of the future? The next Apple? Well, when they first came on the scene, these were some of the hottest stocks out there. Of course, there eventually comes a time when the real market steps in, and it wants to see things, you know, like “profits” and “cash flow.”
And they haven't. Yet.