Julielynn Wong on the Future of Healthcare

Award-winning, Harvard educated physician, innovator, and powerhouse, Julielynn Wong, is radically transforming the healthcare industry through accessible 3D printed medical solutions. Julielynn is the President of 3D4MD, and has served as the Health and Safety Officer for the Mars Desert Research Station. She seeks to inspire a new generation of innovators through her novel and interactive 3D printing technology and solutions. According to Julielynn, “anybody can be an innovator” – it’s about creating technology that’s beneficial and accessible for the majority of people.

3D4MD Mission Badge
Credit: 3D4MD

You’re the President of 3D4MD and a leader in solar-powered 3D printing. How would you describe your work and what your job entails?

3D4MD brings innovators, healthcare professionals, and patients together to create affordable 3D printable medical solutions to positively impact over one billion lives. We’ve shown it’s possible to use low-cost, portable 3D printers to make medical supplies locally using solar energy to deliver the highest standard of medical care in the most challenging places to those who need it the most.

At the Toronto Design Offsite Symposium, you said “public health is about addressing problems that affect a lot of people.” What excites you about 3D printing as a means to facilitate this?

There are over one billion people with disabilities. Many of them need but can’t get custom assistive devices that allow them to participate fully in everyday life. The reason why is because there’s a global shortage of skilled workers who can make custom assistive devices. But now it’s possible to use free software to create 3D models of custom assistive devices and 3D print them cheaply using local 3D printers in public libraries, schools, makerspaces, print shops, or people’s homes. This saves time and money for people with disabilities.

Over one billion people lack access to electricity. In many remote places, simple medical items are costly and can take weeks to months to arrive at a clinic. I designed and tested a solar-powered, plug-and-play, ultra-portable 3D printing system to make a range of hygienic, effective, and low-cost medical supplies at the point of use. This system fits inside a carry-on suitcase which allows safer handling of fragile parts and saves money by avoiding checked baggage fees. Healthcare workers visiting remote villages can bring this solar-powered suitcase 3D printer with them to make medical supplies on site. These workers can leave these 3D printers behind after teaching the local community how to design and print their own solutions to generate income. The local community could even print parts to make more 3D printers.

How do you imagine 3D printing, as a completely accessible domain, will impact the future?

With 3D printing, physical objects can be stored as digital files. So it’s possible to email supplies around the globe or uplink objects to space.

At 3D4MD, we’re building a digital library, like iTunes, but instead of songs, people can select, customize, and download 3D printable files to make safe and effective medical supplies locally.

We believe that no one should have to suffer needlessly or die because of lack of access to 3D printable medical supplies.

When we talk about that future more broadly, consumption and sustainability are key issues. How do you feel your work impacts this?

We’re investigating other off-grid power sources for 3D printing and potentially using 3D printer feedstock containing recycled plastic to make safe and functional medical supplies.

3D printing medical supplies in space resolves very important challenges of space travel for prolonged period. In the future, what are some scenarios this technology could resolve? What are some of the most important objects astronauts will need to print in space?

Astronauts can’t take everything they will need with them on a long space mission. So they may have to 3D print medical supplies, tools, equipment, spare parts, and even habitats on-site.

In your experience, what have been some of the most significant challenges of 3D printing in space? In the future, what new opportunities and/or barriers might exist?

Star Trek Replicators are real. The first 3D printer was launched to the International Space Station last fall. The first functional object 3D printed in space was a panel for the 3D printer’s extruder. This showed that the first off-world 3D printer is capable of printing part of itself. This means that the first Star Trek Replicator is partially self-replicating.

Star Trek Selfie
Credit: Julielynn Wong

Today, it’s possible for someone to book the Made In Space Inc. off-world 3D printer, upload your digital models, and test what can be printed in microgravity. I now have a print slot reserved to 3D print the first medical tools onboard the International Space Station.

How do you see your role changing, shifting, or influencing the future of 3D printing?

With 3D printing, anybody can be an innovator.

Now it’s possible to take an idea, create a digital design, and make it physically real by clicking “print.” My role is to inspire, teach, and empower people to become innovators and use 3D printing to solve big challenges.

From 3D printing supplies in rural communities here on earth, to doing it in space, you have 3D printed supplies in some of the most remote and resource constrained environments. What is next for you? What’s exciting about the future of 3D printing?

Julielynn Wong
Credit: Julielynn Wong

I’ve helped launch two crowd-sourced, open-source 3D printing design challenges and will be posting more humanitarian design challenges on the 3D4MD website. Imagine the global problems we could solve when we harness our collective creativity!

the author

Elinor Keshet

Elinor Keshet is an innovation strategist, healthcare at Idea Couture.