The official purpose of a recent FDA-sponsored workshop was "to provide a forum for FDA, medical device manufacturers, additive manufacturing companies and academia to discuss technical challenges and solutions of 3-D printing." The FDA wants "input to help it determine technical assessments that should be considered for additively manufactured devices to provide a transparent evaluation process for future submissions."

Simply put, the FDA is trying to stay current with advanced manufacturing technologies that are revolutionizing patient care and, in some cases, democratizing its availability. When a next-door neighbor can print a medical device in his or her basement, it clearly has many positive and negative implications that need to be considered.

Ignoring the regulatory implications for a moment, the presentations at the workshop were fascinating.

STERIS representative Dr. Bill Brodbeck cautioned that the complex designs and materials now being created with additive manufacturing make sterilization practices challenging. For example, how will the manufacturer know if the implant is sterile or if the agent has been adequately removed? Also, some materials and designs cannot tolerate acids, heat or pressure, making sterilization more difficult.

Dr. Thomas Boland from the University of Texas at El Paso shared his team's work on 3-D-printed tissues. Using inkjet technology, the researchers are evaluating the variables involved in successfully printing skin. Another bio-printing project being undertaken at Wake Forest by Dr. James Yoo involves constructing bladder-shaped prints using bladder cell biopsies and scaffolding.

Dr. Peter Liacouras at Walter Reed discussed his institution's practice of using 3-D printing to create surgical guides and custom implants. In another biomedical project, work done at Children's National Hospital by Drs. Axel Krieger and Laura Olivieri involves the physicians using printed cardiac models to "inform clinical decisions," i.e. evaluate conditions, plan surgeries and reduce operating time.

As interesting as the presentations were, the subsequent discussions were arguably more important. In an attempt to identify and address all significant impacts of additive manufacturing on medical device production, the subject was organized into preprinting (input), printing (process) and post-printing (output) considerations. Panelists and other stakeholders shared their concerns and viewpoints on each topic in an attempt to inform and persuade FDA decision-makers.

An interesting (but expected) outcome was the relative positions of the various stakeholders. Well-established and large manufacturers proposed validation procedures: material testing, process operating guidelines, quality control, traceability programs, etc. Independent makers argued that this approach would impede, if not eliminate, their ability to provide low-cost prosthetic devices.

Comparing practices to the highly regulated food industry, one can understand and accept the need to adopt similar measures for some additively manufactured medical devices. An implant is going into someone's body, so the manufacturer needs to evaluate and assure the quality of raw materials, processing procedures and finished product.

But, as in the food industry, this means the producer needs to know the composition of materials. Suppliers cannot hide behind proprietary formulations. If manufacturers are expected to certify that a device is safe, they need to know what ingredients are in the materials they are using.

Many in the industry are also lobbying the FDA to agree that manufacturers should be expected to certify the components and not the additive manufacturing process itself. They argue that what matters is whether the device is safe, not what process was used to make it.

Another distinction should be the product's risk level. Devices should continue to be classified as I, II or III and that classification, not the process used, should determine its level of regulation.

If you are interested in submitting comments to the FDA on this topic, post them by Nov. 10.