3d printed NP Swabs printed by ORIGIN with customized Medical LOCTITE resin

Opening Up the 3D Printing Ecosystem Is Driving Growth in the Medical Sector

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3D printing continues to penetrate the medical device sector in new — and sometimes surprising — ways. Physical technology advancements and new material innovations are playing a part in expanding the reach of 3D printing across the medical sector. However, one often overlooked factor in this evolutionary expansion is how system manufacturers are increasingly realising there is strategic value in opening up their once closed hardware to new materials from different partners to promote innovation with new and/or improved applications, which in turn is leading to wider adoption.

Since the advent of additive manufacturing more than three decades ago, 3D printing and medical sectors have proven to be mutually beneficial to one another. In the early years the main focus for medical device manufacturers was improving the product development processes with the ability to cost-effectively iterate faster and more often with rapidly produced prototypes to arrive at better product outcomes without compromising lead times.

Over the last two decades the range of 3D printing processes (1) and the materials have evolved in many ways. Simultaneously there has also been a tremendous push to develop more advanced software to manage the process chain — from initial digital design through to the process parameters that control the machines. This growing ecosystem of pioneering incumbents, new start-ups and existing large OEMs with new 3D printing strategies has pushed and pulled the other constituents today with 3D printing as a viable production process for an increasing array of applications with many, notably, in the medical sector. The global market for 3D printing in medicine alone is expected to be worth $1.8bn by 2022. (2)  

One area of the ecosystem that has hindered progress is the closed systems that only process proprietary materials. Driven by a ‘consumable profit’ model, this was an understandable strategy by the pioneers of many 3D printing systems with a captive market – but there is no denying it stilted progress and innovation. Today, thankfully, things are opening up and moving faster as a result. 

High impact, durable material used for medical devices which is jointly commercialized by Nexa3D and Henkel

Medical Applications & The Benefits They Bring 

Across the medical device sector there are many innovative applications of 3D printing that are benefitting both healthcare professionals and patients alike in terms of better medical practice and healthcare outcomes. Nowhere has 3D printing had a more dramatic effect on the human condition than it has when adopted within the medical field. It is changing lives for the better whether within hospitals for surgical models and planning or in medical device companies for the production of improved products leading to better patient outcomes. Moreover, it is currently the medical sector that is demonstrating the greatest potential of a paradigm shift as a result of 3D printing customized and personalized medical solutions.

The scope of the medical device industry is immense. Today the concept development value of 3D printing and form/function/fit testing capabilities for more complex devices is virtually a given. However, the ecosystem advancements outlined above are now resulting in the direct production of personalised medical devices. Hearing aids are the standout example of high volume production here: one of the earliest brands to adopt 3D printing for this production application was Phonak, which is owned by Sonova, the Swiss hearing solutions technology company that is among five of the world’s largest hearing aid companies. Sonova has been serially producing polymer hearing aid shells since 2007, in volumes as high as millions per year.

Two other prevalent applications of 3D printing today are the production of patient-specific medical models in preparation for surgery and the production of patient-specific surgical guides utilised during surgery. Both of these applications capitalise on the two unique selling points of 3D printing — personalisation that enables the “patient-specific” angle from captured 3D digital data via today’s sophisticated CT scanning techniques, and the ability to (relatively) easily produce very complex shapes accurately in one build. A key driver for these 3D printing applications is that they allow surgeries to become less invasive and more efficient — which in turn reduces the risk of complications and/or infections and promotes faster recovery. A further benefit of this, particularly in the US, is that it reduces the chances of patients having insurance issues, as typically insurers will not pay (3) for the treatment of hospital-acquired infections.

Other application areas that are benefitting from a customised approach enabled by 3D printing include patient-specific orthopaedic implants, customised prosthetics, and dental implants. These each invariably have the same benefit gains as outlined above, with the additional benefit of a longer life cycle because wear and tear is reduced thanks to more effective bespoke fitting to a patient’s anatomy.

Something more … 

The ability to print on demand further improves return on investment (ROI) for medical device companies, with faster production times, less material waste, the elimination of tooling costs and a reduction in inventory. Sometimes, however, ROI is not THE most important thing, as our current global situation with COVID-19 demonstrates. Sometimes, 3D printing offers a way to do something faster and more capably than any other manufacturing process.

The Key to Unlocking Further Growth

For every single medical application with 3D printing, however, the key is the material that is used. Regardless of classification of medical device,(4) the material will require regulatory approval. This is where collaboration plays a vital role in innovation and progress. 3D printing manufacturers are increasingly realising the benefits of collaborating with specialist materials companies to further innovate in this area — it’s happening all around the world and the results can be seen in the exponential growth that we are witnessing in 3D printing medical applications. 

If you are interested in further discussing 3D printing of medical devices or other medical device assembly, please 

About the author

Jason Spencer is Henkel’s Global Key Account Head for Medical within the Adhesive Technology business unit, where he is focused on setting broad strategic guidance and leading a team of professionals in delivering high-quality products proven to help reduce costs in the assembly of medical devices.

With over 20 years’ experience in industrial manufacturing and 8 years focused in the medical device sector, Spencer possesses a deep understanding of the medical market needs, and challenges of medical device manufacturers. Spencer joined Henkel in 1997 as an Account Representative and has worked in various roles including Key Account Manager, Business Director, Global Business Director and Global Market Development.

With a proven professional track record of delivering reliable solutions, Jason is committed to helping customers achieve their goals through optimizing current processes and developing new assembly techniques while maintaining safety and superior performance.

Based in North Carolina, Jason holds a Technology Bachelor’s degree from State University of New York College at Oswego and MBA from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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