Are 3D Printers The Future of Anatomy Learning?

“3D printing is already shaking our age-old notions of what can and can’t be made” – Hod Lipson

From the paper “Producing 3D printed hand models for anatomy education using cadaveric dissection: a feasibility study.”

Generally, most doctors and some biomedical science researchers will study human anatomy which involves dissecting a cadaver. This is seen as one of the most useful and interesting areas that doctors (and researchers) study. However, the process of obtaining and conducting dissections on cadavers is expensive. Therefore, universities and research institutions are looking to new methods to teach anatomy accurately and efficiently using non-cadaver methods.

This study investigated whether a 3D printed model of a human hand would be beneficial monetary and educationally when teaching anatomy. Previous research has commented that methods to replace cadavers produced medical doctors and researchers with insufficient knowledge of the human anatomy. However, could the advancement of 3D printing change this?

To create a 3D model of the human hand, a hand was dissected from the outside to the inside with regular intervals to take pictures and scan the hand at different timeframes of the dissections. Basically, pictures and scans were taken of the hand when dissected from the skin, through several anatomical layers before reaching the bone. Once printed, the 3D model would be passed on to an anatomical painter who would create a realistic image of a human hand.


Making the 3D model of the hand took less than 70 hours, which is quite low in terms of how long normal medical research can take (which can be years if not decades). It was also shown that, economically, 3D hand models would be more beneficial compared to cadaver models. Despite the start-up cost of 3D modelling being hand, it would be more cost efficient in the long run when compared to the preparation, dissection and storage of a cadaver.

3D anatomy models do not need to be limited to just hand models. With the advancement of 3D printing, students would be able to see models of the thoracic cavity with accurate lung models. However, questions have been asked about the accuracy of 3D anatomy models. Indeed, smaller features of human anatomy which can be microns in size can be lost in 3D models and these features can be very important in health. Therefore, in this sense, cadaver models would be better. However, the accuracy of 3D printers in increasing, with some models having an accuracy of up to 4 microns. With further advancements, the concerns of inaccuracies in anatomical structures will be lost. However, the textual feel of anatomical structures will never be obtained in 3D models and can only be seen in cadaver models. However, future advancements in material sciences could overcome this but this would seem very unlikely due to the intricate nature of the human body.

3D printed hand models have also been used to show pathological (“unhealthy”) features of the hand, such as skin damage and joint rigidity. Meaning that 3D models would definitely be useful in a clinical environment. Once scanned, images that are used to generate 3D models can be used on mobile platforms to provide accurate learning tools for students on the go. 3D models can also improve accessibility to anatomy education which can be lost after a certain level of education.


The use of 3D models also means that negative connotations of manipulating the deceased is mainly lost (mostly in the later stages of education) which some cultures dislike and removes the ethical implications of manipulating cadavers. 3D models could also be used by doctors and surgeons to show patients procedures and to explain difficult concepts. The use of models have already been shown to reduce anxiety levels in healthcare for patients.

However, despite the positive results of 3D printing in anatomy, human error in the procedure could lead to misleading and inaccurate models, creating inaccurate learning tools which may be catastrophic for future professionals. Also, certain anatomical features such as air spaces in the model cannot be shown in 3D models. So, all anatomical models will contain some inaccuracies.

It is clear that 3D printed anatomical models will be useful education tools for students and they should be introduced into the university environment. However, students need to be careful and understand that structures and features shown in the models can look completely different in a cadaver. The accuracy of 3D printing will remove this eventually but 3D printing will never replace the ‘feel’ of anatomical structures. With this concern in mind, cadavers should not be fully replaced by 3D models but less emphasis should be placed on cadavers and more on 3D models when appropriate.

— by Daniel Baird


Dhumale, Sr, Tw Barraclough, A Stokes, and W Lam. “Producing 3D Printed Hand Models for Anatomy Education Using Cadaveric Dissection: A Feasibility Study.” The Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 100, no. 5 (July 2018): 217–22.

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