So much has been written about the uses of 3D printing technology but its impact transcends industrial use as it is now used as a life-saving tool.

Fourteen-month old Roland Lian Cung Bawi, from Owensboro, Kentucky, who was born with four congenital heart defects, had to undergo a heart surgery to fix his condition. Heart surgery particularly on a very young child, however, can be extremely difficult and it prompted cardiothoracic surgeon Erle Austin III from Louisville, Kentucky, to turn to 3D printing technology so he can better prepare for and perform the procedure smoothly.

Austin and his medical team collaborated with University of Louisville engineers to produce a three-dimensional model of the young patient's heart based on images from a CT scan.

The resulting 3D printed heart was 1.5 times bigger than that of the child's heart and built in three pieces using a flexible polymer called "Ninja Flex", which gave the model heart a consistency that is similar to the muscles of a real heart.

Once the heart model was available, Austin developed a surgical plan and completed young Roland's heart repair in only one operation. "Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it," Austin said. "It was a tremendous benefit."

The 3D printed heart also allowed Austin to cut the operating time, reduce exploratory incisions and ensure that the very young patient would not need follow-up operations.

"Some people think when you do heart surgery, you go in and can see everything. Well, to see everything, you have to slice through vital structures," said Austin. "Sometimes the surgeon has to guess at what's the best operation."

The model heart took 20 machine hours to make but costs only $600, a relatively cheap amount given its crucial role in the life-saving operation as Austin said it provided him crucial insights prior to the surgery.

"I found the model to be a game changer in planning to do surgery on a complex congenital heart defect," Austin said.

Kosair Children's Hospital said that Roland's surgery was the first time that 3D printing was used for a pediatric heart patient in Kentucky but there have already been a number of medical stories tied with 3D printing technology. One father, for instance, created a 3D printed prosthetic hand for his son for only $5 when they found the cost of the official product too expensive.

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