Mar 022011
 

If you remember the MASH episode where Hawkeye and BJ got the Korean fix-it guy to build them a one-of-a-kind vein clamp, then you will understand the importance of custom-designed surgical tools – surgery is definitely not a field in which people should just make do with the next-best thing.

Unfortunately, the production of some types of instruments can be quite involved, meaning they can’t always be created quickly or cheaply. At this month’s MEDTEC Europe trade show, however, researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials will be demonstrating new technology that uses a laser melting process to easily create pretty much any surgical instrument imaginable … or so they claim.

Fraunhofer‘s technique uses metal powder – cobalt-chromium steel or titanium – as its building material. An extremely thin laser beam is used to melt this powder down, building it from the bottom up into the desired object one layer at a time, not unlike a 3D printer. There are said to be no restrictions on the shape or interior structure of the instrument, allowing it to even contain features such as curved channels. Previously, such features would usually need to be cast, or welded into place.

All that is required before production can begin is a three-dimensional computer model – no molds or production tools are necessary.

Likely due to the layered nature of the finished products, radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips enclosed inside of them can still transmit and receive. Previously, small holes had to be left in instruments containing such chips, otherwise they couldn’t be read. By using RFID-equipped tools, surgical staff would be able to keep track of information such as their location, total numbers, state of cleanliness, and date of manufacture.

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