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Sam Onukuri holding 3d Models

The power of 3-D printing: how this technology is blazing new medical frontiers

He goes by the name Mr. 3-D Printing—and there’s a good reason for it. Sam Onukuri, head of Johnson & Johnson’s 3-D Printing Center of Excellence, shares why his work is so exciting and potentially life-changing for surgeons and patients alike.

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Imagine being able to design and print a specialized metal tool in a day. That’s the promise of 3-D printers: machines the size of refrigerators in some cases—even microwaves, in others—that can lay down such materials as plastic, metal and even human cells, layer by layer, to create functional items before your eyes.

And they’re not something out of a futuristic movie.

Just look at Johnson & Johnson’s 3-D Printing Center of Excellence, which is working to change the landscape of healthcare through 3-D printing innovations. At the helm of the center is Sam Onukuri, a mechanical engineer with a specialty in metallurgy.

We caught up with Onukuri, whose colleagues call him “Mr. 3-D Printing,” ahead of the center’s highly-anticipated debut of customized surgical tools, which will be available to surgeons in hospitals across the country this week.

Intrigued? So were we.

It’s my responsibility to …

3-D printing is a collection of a broad family of technologies that use everything from metals to polymers to biomaterials—materials that mimic living tissue—in order to create objects. Metal parts, for example, are made with laser-based or electron beam-based 3-D printers that use metal powders for raw material; the laser or electron beam fuses together the powder. Polymer parts are made using ultraviolet, infrared or visible light in conjunction with laser or heat energy.

So my job is to use these technologies to deliver 3-D printing solutions to different operating companies within Johnson & Johnson. The technology can have transformative applications across all businesses, like surgical tools for surgeons, medical implants for patients and even medicine tablets for consumers someday.

3D Printing: Sam Onukuri at 3d Printer

Onukuri with one of his 3D printers

3-D printing of surgical instruments is innovative because …

If you look at, say, the orthopedic business, there is a big inventory of products. For example, a surgeon treating a person going into trauma surgery might need multiple cases of instruments, which creates a lot of inefficiencies. What we are trying to do with 3-D printing is customize these instruments specifically for each patient, so you don’t have to take so many different sizes into surgery. 3-D printing can also speed up the production of tools. Surgical instruments have a lot of moving parts. Traditionally what’s done is that a machine is used to create individual components that go into a particular instrument, and then you bring it all together with screws or other types of welding. The fascinating thing about 3-D printing is we can print the entire instrument at one time on the printer, and when the product comes out, it is fully functional. It can really shrink down the process and make it a lot faster and less expensive to manufacture.

We’re also developing solutions for older patients who don’t take their medicine, like tablets with 3-D printing sensors that could send a signal to your iPhone or to your doctor that says, “Yep, this person took this pill.”

And that’s just the beginning of what 3-D printing can do …

We recently announced a partnership with DePuy Synthes and Ethicon, members of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies, to develop a prototype for bioprinted knee meniscus tissue that would be suitable for surgical implants, potentially making surgery and recovery easier on patients.

The implications hit close to home: My mother-in-law had two knees replaced. If there was a customized 3-D printed knee available then, her pain and the recuperation time could have been reduced.

Another product planned for later this year is a titanium alloy implant for cancer patients who have bone degradation due to the disease. We custom design the implant for each patient using any type of scan, whether it’s an MRI or a regular X-ray, to extract their particular anatomy. Then we reverse design the product, and a digital file is transferred into the 3-D printer. The printer will print exactly what the patient needs to replace the degraded bone. You can get a scan from thousands of miles away in a matter of seconds!We’re also developing solutions for older patients who don’t take their medicine, like tablets with 3-D printing sensors that could send a signal to your iPhone or to your doctor that says, “Yep, this person took this pill.”

I’m drawn to 3-D printing because …

I grew up in India, and have lived in the U.S. for about 30 years. A lot of the technology we have here, we take for granted. 3-D printing can deliver new solutions globally.

To make products now we have large factories that require a significant investment. We produce things, and we ship them out. With 3-D printing, we can potentially move manufacturing to a very small footprint, doing the same thing closer to the customer. That means products do not need to be shipped as far, and there’s a faster turnaround.

In remote areas of Africa, China or India, for example, that have no infrastructure to create tools or implants, a small, simple 3-D printer can be put on a truck or on a drone to get closer to where the need is.

I think we will be able to touch a lot more patients and a lot more customers—and that really excites me.

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