Improving CRPM has changed the face of constructive surgery

The Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) uses 3D printing to rebuild deformed faces of South Africans, and has contributed, pro bono, to more than 30 reconstructive surgeries in South Africa over the past five years alone, all of which were for South Africans from poor communities.

In doing so, they have captured the imagination of South Africans from all walks of life, about the new possibilities of Industry 4.0 in improving quality of life.

The CRPM uses its state of the art additive manufacturing printing machines and expert engineering knowledge to create the prosthetics, implants and surgical guides.It has managed to transfer skills from hard-core industrial applications to the precision world of customised medical implants.

To guarantee repeatability and also to open the global market, the CRPM team took a giant leap and applied for ISO 13485 certification in the design and 3D printing of patient-specific titanium implants as well as cutting and positioning guides. Globally, very few institutions have this certification in additive manufacturing.

The team received ISO 13485 certification in 2016 (currently, the only manufacturer in Africa with such certification) and this has opened the door to produce patient-specific implants for global as well as local customers.

The use of additive manufacturing to produce customised medical implants (such as jaw and cheek bones) and prosthetics (such as ears and noses) is at the forefront of medical science development at present.

The CRPM was started by Professor Deon de Beer at Central University of Technology (CUT), in Bloemfontein in 1997. Back then, 3D printing was still in its infancy worldwide but thanks to his foresight, equipment was purchased and research carried out in this new technology, which put South Africa at the forefront of this developing technology.

In 2007, the CPRM purchased its first titanium machine from EOS GmbH, one of only six in the world.

Dr Gerrie Booysen was involved from the inception of the centre and after De Beer’s departure in 2008, Booysen assumed leadership of the centre, and has since led the commercialisation and industry-supported projects into additive manufacturing.

CUT purchased two metal 3D printing machines to position the centre to carry out advanced research and commercialisation of metal 3D printing, despite budget constraints and the reluctance of the market to embrace this new technology.

Professor Cules van den Heever, currently employed by CUT as a visiting professor and clinical advisor, heard about the work being done at CRPM during 2012 and after visiting the facilities and discussing the possibilities to develop medical devices and maxillofacial implants for State patients, initiated the collaboration that is the subject of this award.

The CRPM team saw the potential to make a difference in the lives of state patients who have to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous growth, or who, as a result of trauma (such as shooting accidents), are grossly disfigured.

With the state not always having the finances to carry out reconstructive surgery to restore their quality of life, these patients are sent home to cope as best as they can — and they usually withdraw from society.

No research on the subject was being done in South Africa and there was not much research worldwide. The process chain from taking the patient’s scan, developing a design, through to the manufacture of a patient-specific implant in titanium that must be validated, sterilised and delivered to the theatre in a period of four weeks, required much thought and understanding of the technology as well as the medical procedure to be followed.

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