The history of medical implants stretches back to the time of the Incas in 3000 BC, when they used gold and silver for repairing defects in trephination. Medical implants have come a long way since then, evolving not just in design and function but also in the method of placing them inside the body. Implant manufacturers have discovered how biocompatible titanium is, thus making it the metal of choice for surgical implants. But it seems like doctors and scientists are now taking these titanium implants to a whole new level, thanks to 3D printing.

By definition, 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. It has various applications in different sectors, including design visualisation, metal casting, prototyping, architecture and even entertainment. But perhaps the most essential contribution of 3D printing happens in the healthcare space, where printed organs can be used as implants, hence replacing an ailing part of the body and making it as good as new, or even better.

The process of 3D printing for medicine, also known as tissue engineering, is pretty much the same as for other applications, except that the "bioprinting" method has the capability to print something alive. The desired implant or body part is scanned or designed using a modeling software. The data is sent to the printer, which uses syringes to lay down successive coats of matter until a three-dimensional object emerges. As the scaffold is being printed, cells from the intended patient are printed onto and into the scaffold. The structure is then placed in an incubator, the cells multiply, and the resulting object is then implanted into the patient.

Just like traditional implants, these 3D-printed body parts are made of titanium alloys, specifically grades five and 23, which are considered medical-grade titanium. These alloys are made of six percent aluminium and four percent vanadium. Titanium's resistance to corrosion, ability to come in contact with a living system without having adverse effects, ability to bond with natural bone and tissues, and overall human safety makes it the number one material of choice for tissue engineering.

There are various sources of titanium all over the world, and there are many more being developed to support the booming medical implant industry. For instance, the Cerro Blanco deposit in Chile managed by White Mountain Titanium Corporation (OTCQB:WMTM) has the potential to become one of the largest titanium and rutile mines in the world. It is estimated to contain 112 million tons of rutile, with resources deemed sufficient enough to support mine operation for at least 20 years.

At present, medical 3D printing is primarily used in reconstructing severely damaged bone and tissue structures.The external structure of the ear is one of the first structures that research centers are trying to master as a stepping stone for more complicated ones. Dr Scott Hollister, one of the pioneers of tissue engineering from the University of Michigan, thinks that 3D-printed body organs will not happen until 50 years. In spite of this, research firm IDTechEx expects the tissue engineering market to reach $6 billion by 2024.

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