The notion “one size fits all” may soon become obsolete because of rapid manufacturing processes developed at Iowa State University that can make it as cost effective to make one of a kind as it is to make many of a kind.

Rapid manufacturing combines information technology with automation to build custom components for use in vehicle, aerospace, health care, and dozens of other industries.

Matt Frank, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, directs Iowa State’s Rapid Manufacturing and Prototyping Laboratory. After years of developing processes for making prototypes and spare parts for industrial applications, his team recently developed a process to custom manufacture replacement bone implants. These implants replace fragments of bone that are severely pulverized or missing after traumatic bone injuries from accidents or explosions.

The process involves importing a digital model of the missing bone fragment from medical imaging, selecting a piece of donor bone in storage, and loading models of the fragment and donor bones into a machine that runs a program that automatically carves the bone to match the digital model. The Iowa State team collaborated with researchers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Frank says the rapid manufacturing process could save hours of surgery time and cost required to carve bone fragments by hand. And it will provide the patient a more precise fit.

“We expect that this will align the ankle or whatever bone was broken with better accuracy, giving the patient a little better shot of going back to full function later in life,” Frank added.

The discovery of a way to custom manufacture replacement parts for humans is an example of Iowa State University’s Destination 2050 – a campus-wide effort to use the university’s enormous capabilities to address food, health, and industrial challenges facing 9.6 billion people.

“If we can do this for health care, we can give a person customized treatment that they can actually afford,” Frank said.