Since the early 1980s — when printers were but a mere one-color dot matrix contraption that we remember most for hours spent carefully pulling off those perforated holes — developers, engineers, and inventors have been working on perfecting the 3-D printer. Today, this technology is becoming more ubiquitous, versatile, and user-friendly. Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration admits that 3-D research is in its “early stage of development” when it comes to health care, doctors have used the technology for successful tumor surgeries and even skull implants.

The Dallas Morning News recently examined the case of a toddler, Ivy Chacon, whose heart grew on the wrong side of her chest. With the chambers facing in the wrong direction, doctors at Cook Children’s Medical Center had to be precise. Although all of the surgeons were skilled, they knew this was an extremely delicate case.

When preparing for highly technical surgeries, a doctor’s “mental model” and even ultrasound offer little help. After all, both are two-dimensional. And some cases call for hands-on practice.

To make matters more difficult, surgeons knew that to operate on the child, they would have to stop her heart to do a complex reconstruction. One doctor noted that, “The longer it takes, the more problems there will be afterward.”

Time was of the essence. And without having worked on a specific case like this before, doctors looked to 3-D printing to help them prepare for this major surgery. The system at Cook Children’s Medical Center uses MRI and CT data to create printable replicas of organs giving clinicians a full understanding of the anatomy before they make a single incision.

After six-and-a-half hours of printing thin layer by thin layer, Ivy’s 3-D heart was ready for surgeons to examine and plan the successful surgery for Ivy.

Bolstered by success stories like this, 3-D health care printing is expected to to be a $2.3 billion dollar business in three years. But there are still limitations to the technology. In a heart condition case with extracardiac problems, 3-D isn’t feasible. Luckily, technology like VR bridge the gap.

3D Printing in hospital