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6 Reasons 3-D Printing Will Take Over Medtech

Chris Newmarker

January 16, 2015

4 Min Read
6 Reasons 3-D Printing Will Take Over Medtech

Rov Richards

Rob Richards

3-D printing has been around for decades. But in medtech, it is still mostly a prototyping technology. The situation could soon change, and 3-D printing could catch on for manufacturing medical devices, says Rob Richards, business development manager for Orchid Design (Shelton, CT), which is part of Holt, MI-based orthopedic contract manufacturer Orchid

In Orchid's space, about 90% of 3-D printing is used for prototyping, 7% is used to make surgical instruments, and 3% goes toward actual implantable parts. But within a decade or so, Richards envisions a factory with hundreds of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) or EOS machines engaged in various facets of high-volume medical device manufacturing. 

Here are six reasons Richards thinks this is going to happen:

1. Mass Production Is a Different Issue in Medtech

One of the major arguments against using 3-D printing in medtech is that one simply cannot achieve the economies of scale possible through more traditional manufacturing methods such as molding and machining. Richards, however, points out that there are plenty of devices that are not manufactured in the types of quantities one sees in, say, the automotive industry. And designs can exhibit a level of complexity that would be much more expensive to manufacture through traditional techniques.

See Justin Conway, product development engineering at Orchid, discuss effective prototyping and 3-D printing at MD&M West, in Anaheim, CA, February 10-12, 2015.

2. Much More Customizable

This is 3-D printing's great strong-suit. Combine that with the use of "design for manufacturing" principles, and Richards envisions all kinds of economic benefits that might yet prove the traditionalist naysayers wrong.

Richards sees the day when 3-D printing shows how cost effective it can be in the hands of "engineers who are trained and talented with designing with this technology in mind--and able to design for specific applications."

"You use two different set of rules to determine what's cheap," Richards says when comparing 3-D printing with older manufacturing methods. "How do we optimized design for manufacturing for additive manufacturing? I think that's what it comes to."

"There are design opportunities available through additive manufacturing that are still unknown. We need to dig those up and change our approach to implant design," Richards says.

3. It Isn't a Zero Sum Game

Richards also notes that it doesn't necessarily have to be 3-D printing versus molding and extrusion. There is a technology that involves the intersection of 3-D printing and injection molding (or 3D IM, for short).

Orchid itself uses a similar technology from Valencia, CA-based Scicon Technologies, which Richards described as a type of rapid prototyping "casting." Basically, it involves printing the molds and then casting metal parts in them.

Richards acknowledges that there are drawbacks, especially when if a part needs secondary manufacturing. Parts produced through such a process are not purely homogeneous, which makes it technically challenging to then run them through electronic discharge machining.

4. Design Can Overcome and Surpass Material Drawbacks

Richards acknowledges that the variety of medtech materials available for 3-D printing is less than desirable. Plus, materials--especially steel and titanium alloys--may not achieve the level of strength or other properties that one sees with the traditional manufacturing properties.

The plus side, though, is that 3-D printing can be used to create much more sophisticated shapes and designs--including internal structures--that make up or even surpass whatever is lost in material properties, according to Richards.

"You can create geometries you simply can't machine. By using that and taking advantage of that, you can design the geometry so it can perform like a specific material property," Richards says.

5. Biocompatibility Advantages

The internal geometries and structures are also enabling more biocompatable, porous materials that could allow orthopedic and other implanted devices to have enhanced properties such as promoting bone growth, Richards said.

6. It Can Be Highly Precise

The DMLS machines that Ortho uses can be precise to within 0.0015 in., while molding or extrusion often has tolerances within 0.005 in., according to Richards. That means 3-D printing is already winning out when it comes to precision.

"We're already more accurate than standard manufacturing tolerances. ... Speed is getting better. The cost is getting lower," Richards says.

"It's only going to get faster and cheaper."

Will Medtech's Future Be Printed? 

7 3-D Printing Breakthroughs That Matter for Medtech

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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