9 Investigates: 3D printing and how it's changing local lives

9 Investigates: 3D printing and how it's changing local lives

Frank Keel can now enjoy a morning stroll with his wife.  For years he had back issues, but now he is grateful for every step.

"Over the years it just got worse and worse until finally I could not walk. The pain was so bad," Keel said.

[ALSO READ: Charlotte teen gets 3D printed arm]

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He underwent spinal fusion surgery. Doctors placed rods and screws up and down his spine in an attempt to relieve the pain.

"I was in a hard-shell brace for six months," he said. "It was very uncomfortable."

After recovery, he wore that old brace to prevent reinjury.

That is until he walked into 3D Systems in Rock Hill and learned about 3D printing.

Rajeev Kulkarni is a vice president of 3D Systems.

"Every human is different. The biggest value 3D printing offers is you can print a one of a kind, custom part at a really low cost," Kulkarni said.

In the 80s the company's co-founder, Chuck Hull created 3D printing.

Huge printers use materials like plastic and metal to create products one layer at a time.

One of the company's partners uses the printers to make personalized back braces for scoliosis patients and for people, like Keel, with back injuries.

"We take the patient and use a scanner to take a scan of the patient and use the scan to make the design," Lisa Tweardy, vice president of orthopedics at UNYQ.

"3D printing is so awesome. It is so exact. This one breathes, it is comfortable to wear, it's lightweight. The other shell was very hard. It was heavy and very cumbersome," said Keel.

Kulkarni said 3D technology is being used in all sorts of innovative ways.

"All hearing aids, automotive parts, aerospace parts," he said. "If you look at implants, cranial implants, jaw implants, rib cages, hip joints, knee joints."

3D Systems is researching bio-printing, the process of using life cells to print body parts.

In 2013, North Carolina surgeon Anthony Atala used living cells and a 3D printer to build a transplantable kidney during an episode of "Ted Talks."

"It works in labs. It is in research. Lots of companies are doing this not just 3D Systems," said Kulkarni. "It's a very real possibility that some of the key organs that get replaced today don't have to be donated by somebody else."

It's a possibility that could help patients in need of organs giving them the same new life Keel is now enjoying.