As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, RP was not developed to solve the problems of medical modelling; it is more happenstance that it is suitable for such. It therefore follows that RP is not an ideal solution and there are problems in using it.
The most obvious problem is cost. While it is difficult specifically to allocate cost to a process when considering the potential for saving or improving the quality of life, it is clear that all technologies have associated costs. Even where there are obvious benefits in terms of improving the medical service, the approach may be cost prohibitive. Many RP machines are costly to run, particularly in terms of material costs. This is partly a consequence of the relatively low number of machines currently available. As the technology becomes more popular in all areas, operating costs will surely drop. Indeed, evidence already shows that operating costs have dropped consistently year on year over the last 15 years.
In addition to cost, the properties of the materials used leave much to be desired. Most importantly, RP materials must be considerably more biocompatible than they are at present. Many materials are not even fit to be sterilized and taken into operating theatres. The mechanical properties of most RP parts are generally poor, with parts often being too weak or brittle to withstand constant use. One aim of RP research is to develop rapid manufacturing technologies that use the layer-based approach to direct manufacture of products. With the demanding environment that is associated with constant use, harsh and variable conditions and heavy physical loads, it is surely a long way off before rapid manufacture of medical devices is possible.
The term rapid prototyping is somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes the model is not used as a prototype (in the case of rapid manufacture) and, more importantly for many, the parts are not made rapidly enough. The term refers to an alternative way of producing prototypes which required significantly more time and effort from skilled artisans. However, this is something engineers and product designers and developers can appreciate more than doctors and surgeons. As it is, RP can only be applied to applications that involve planning over periods of weeks or months rather than emergency situations.
Finally, doctors and surgeons are supported by many different technical experts. It is difficult to see exactly which type of technician would be responsible for making models, but it is likely such expertise is not commonly available in a normal hospital. This may have an influence on the type of machine that would prove suitable for medical applications since the more versatile machines also require greater care, attention and expertise in order to run successfully.
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