We reported not so long ago on one of the more curious applications of 3D printing technology in the medical sector, which is the production of replica foetuses. Expectant parents can order a 3D printed model of their unborn baby, which serves as an intimate memento to commemorate their experience of the pregnancy as well as allowing them to touch their child as it is in utero. Hong Kong’s Adventist Hospital, in Tsuen Wan, has become one of the first medical facilities in Asia to offer this service.
Ultrasound scans have been a major part of pregnancies for decades now, and recent years saw them becoming even more advanced, with scanners that can render 3D or even 4D moving images of a foetus in its mother’s womb. In combination with 3D printing technology, these ultrasound scans can now be converted into 3D models. The service isn’t as widely available as basic scanning in part due to the cost- the entire service will set patients in Hong Kong back HK$6,000 (which is equivalent to around $770), at least half of which goes towards the final 3D print job.
The 3D printed model foetuses are available for parents to request from 6 weeks into the pregnancy onwards, although most would presumably wait a little while longer to ensure that they ended up with something vaguely resembling a human. A full-body model is available, in a variety of sizes, as is a more detailed 3D print of the foetal face. For a little extra, the replica child can even be encased in a special crystalline material. The turnaround time from 3D scan to final 3D printed model is 3 to 5 days.
While 3D printed foetuses are a fascinating idea in theory, in practice it can seem like something of a weird indulgence or a novelty item for the majority of parents. However, the tactile experience of handling a 3D model could be an important opportunity for the partially sighted or blind. Parents with visual impairments are unable to observe their unborn child in the uterus with regular scans, and this deprives them of what has become one of the key parts of the experience of pregnancy and having a child. The 3D printed model of their baby could therefore be an emotionally charged object for them, one that gives them the chance to pre-natally bond with their son or daughter and better relate to what is going on inside the maternal body. “We haven’t handled lots of visually impaired parents, but we hope to take care of the needs of everyone,” said Doretta Lo Hoi-yee, a senior nursing officer at the hospital’s outpatient department.
Others have pointed out that besides being a bit odd, the excessive and intrusive 3D scanning process that these 3D printed foetuses require is potentially harmful to the developing child. Even leaving aside this issue, the final 3D printed product might not always be received with much enthusiasm by parents. According to Tang Miu-chi, a mother of two, “All foetuses look similar when they are developing...The model doesn’t look pretty to me and looks a bit like a medical specimen.”
Tang said that instead of pre-natal scanning and printing, she would prefer the production of 3D printed models of her children after they are born. Her response serves to confirm the appeal to parents of 3D printing, as a way to physically preserve memories and enhance what is already one of life’s most profoundly emotional experiences. The influence of 3D printing technology continues to grow unabated; regardless of what industry you’re working in, or even if you’re still gestating in the safety of your mother’s womb.