Of all the promising technology breakthroughs – blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) – none are closer to bringing real change to the way we live and work than additive manufacturing (AM).
Using specific volumes of material to sculpt a part, layer-by-layer, offers advantages that expand the boundaries of feasibility in manufacturing.
While the technology can create plastic or ceramic parts, metal AM is growing and developing quickest.
While it’s not a cure-all or miracle solution – a number of key applications can be most efficiently handled with metal 3D printing – the list is growing by the month. The detailed analysis that should accompany any decision to integrate AM into a process is too vast in scope to cover here but following are a few introductory points to help.
Medical advantages from metal AM
In general, metal AM is the right solution for production of components that are highly intricate, specific, or both. Advantages of metal AM are:
- Mass customization
- Lower cost in low volumes
- Design freedom with high complexity
The additive process allows the formation of complex internal geometries impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing. AM allows for custom parts to be made at high volumes because it doesn’t require molds. It’s easier and less expensive to produce a high-quality, unique part by importing a digital drawing than it is to tool and set-up traditional manufacturing. Injection molding and other methods are more efficient at higher volumes, but it’s a clear winner for highly detailed, low-run applications.
Medtech, more than most industries, is characterized by dependence on custom equipment. Metal 3D printing applications include joint replacements, stents, dental inserts, and prosthetics – parts singular in their size and shape.
Joint replacements, surgical instrumentation
Consider a hip replacement. A hip has a demanding list of traits to perform its function:
- It must fit the patient’s unique socket shape
- It must flex, turn, and rotate in at least a reasonable imitation of the original
- It must be safe to implant into a patient’s body
Ten years ago, an Italian surgeon inserted the world’s first titanium 3D printed hip into a patient. Despite early questions about how the joint would hold up, today, the pilot patient is doing “extremely well,” and some experts think it may be reasonable to expect these joints to last 20 years or more. More than 100,000 3D-printed metal hip joints have since been used as replacements.
Another prominent example is in surgical instrumentation, which have only recently begun to be 3D-printed in volume. A very delicate open-heart surgical procedure called keyhole heart surgery was an excellent candidate for innovation. Surgeons wanted a tool that they could dismantle and pass through a tiny incision in the heart. A 3D-printed stainless-steel tool emerged as the solution.
In just three months, the entire suturing procedure was revolutionized and product development cost less than $20,000. Examples like these are becoming increasingly commonplace across all branches of medtech. While metal 3D printing isn’t the perfect manufacturing solution for every industry, it has already changed how we think about what’s possible in medical devices. There is promise for continuous leaps forward.