Could 3D Printing Become the New Ultrasound?

It's approaching the time for your pregnancy ultrasound. In future, could mom and dads decide between regular and 3D printed versions of your baby's image instead?

Could 3D Printing Become the New Ultrasound? CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock

We can all attest to the impression that the introduction of 3D ultrasounds had on newly pregnant couples when they were first released in the 90s. The thrill of seeing your wee one growing inside you, down to the teeniest detail, months before you hold her in your arms, is hard to resist. But could this be taken one step further with advancements in 3D printing?

A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, is saying that doctors are using 3D printing to take the guesswork out of finding abnormalities before babies are born—something a typical ultrasound cannot compete with.

Chandra Adams, OBGYN and owner of Full Circle Women's Care of Jacksonville, Fla., weighs in: "The ability to make more prenatal evaluations is a growing trend in obstetrics, pushing many facilities to offer more and more tests. To that end, 3D/4D sono creates the ability to assess soft tissue structures, whereas traditional 2D ultrasound could only evaluate bony structures. As a result, many pregnancies today will see some form of 3D/4D ultrasonography, whether for diagnostic or recreational purposes."

Just recently, 3D printing was used for the first time to diagnose facial deformity, like cleft lip, and a possible airway obstruction. This is achieved by the machines heating up plastic that then follows the computer program to layer it into three-dimensional shape, making it much easier for doctor's to see and diagnose problems at a much earlier time.

On the downside, the cost of using these machines is pretty substantial—racking up a $10,000-$20,000 annual bill for the software, making the decision to use this technology a costly one. Overuse of this technology is also a concern that many have, though the FDA has acknowledged there is no proven risk. "An often downplayed risk is the number of false-positive, false-negative, or non-diagnostic studies," Dr. Adams says. "Several factors such as maternal obesity, fetal positioning, or fetal movement, can confound the results. For expecting parents, the added anxiety of suspecting something is wrong with their baby can add unnecessary stress during what should otherwise be a happy time. By the same token, a scan that appears normal may lend a false sense of security and find many parents blindsided at delivery."

Well moms, it seems there is a good chance that 3D printing could become a new normal in pregnancy journeys of the future. From the insight of these medical experts, we're thinking that's a pretty incredible thing.