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How to Get the Most Out of 3-D Printing—and Avoid Rotten Miracles

In this Q&A, a 3-D printing expert dishes advice on how to keep 3-D printing projects on track and channels advice from the iconic film The Princess Bride.

Brian Buntz

Ron Belknap
Ron Belknap is president and CEO of ProtoCAM

3-D printing, along with the Internet of Things and nanotechnology, could spark the next industrial revolution. The medical device field is poised to see big gains from 3-D printing technology, which is finding growing use for prototyping and production of finished parts.  

To get some tips on how medtech firms should use the technology, we reached out to Ron Belknap, president and CEO of ProtoCAM (Allentown, PA), who touches on common 3-D printing mistakes, its biggest opportunities, and the medical applications of the technology he's most excited about.

Qmed: What are the most common mistakes you see medical device companies making with respect to 3-D printing?

Belknap: Having run ProtoCAM for over 20 years, the biggest challenges we see occur when companies wait too long before asking for help with their 3-D printed parts.

Getting a physical model in hand early on can be invaluable in helping direct and speed the development of any product--especially medical devices. A high-precision 3-D printed model will quickly prove a design, or uncover needed design corrections. This allows engineers to spend time on fine-tuning a validated design and avoid potentially wasting time on fine details only to have to replicate the effort after remedying core structural issues. Prototyping early helps guard against such project setbacks, expedites turning the designs over to production, and ultimately increases profitability by speeding time to market.

Of course, a bigger mistake would be to invest in expensive injection tooling before fully testing the design with prototype parts, but most companies are smart enough to avoid that mistake.

 

Qmed: What are the biggest opportunities of 3-D printing that medtech companies might be missing out on?

Belknap: One of the big opportunities companies are only starting to fully leverage is the ability to create parts that would be otherwise impossible with conventional manufacturing processes. For example, with additive manufacturing, internal passages can be built directly into parts without regard for tool paths, parting lines, assembly, and so forth. This can significantly reduce number of parts, potential points of failure, and manual processes required to create parts.
 

Qmed: How common is it for 3-D printing projects to go over budget?

Belknap: In our experience, we don't see it very often. As mentioned previously, although 3-D iterations can seem expensive at times, they generally have a very high ROI once risk avoidance, duplication of effort, and expedited time to market are factored in.

 

Qmed: What are some of the main reasons that things go wrong in 3-D printing?

Belknap: On those occasions where things go poorly, the most common similarity is lack of preparation. To quote Miracle Max from the Princess Bride: "You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles." Occasionally, companies will come to us with insufficient time to turn their project around, but insist on shipping sooner than prudent. We ship most of our jobs a couple days after the order is placed, and ProtoCAM's engineers personally assess every part before it's built. This process, while slightly more time consuming than an automated "upload and print" system, can usually head off potential problems before they ever happen.

When clients lack sufficient time, and insist on skipping right to part build, they increase the potential for failure and chance they'll have to repeat the whole process. Ultimately, taking a very little extra bit of time up front can help guard against adding significant total time to project completion.

 

Qmed: Which 3-D printing projects in the life science field are you most excited about?

Belknap: We've done more medical projects than I can recall, and since so many are for development and highly confidential, many, many more than we can talk about. However, a couple outstanding ones come to mind.

Currently, we build the production housings for the electronic control units for Coapt Complete Control (Chicago) prosthetic limbs. They needed durable, aesthetically pleasing enclosures in quantities smaller than justified injection molding. We manufacture the cases for them using PolyJet 3D printing, and they've been working out great in the field.

Another project we had a great time with was 3-D printing the molds for another prosthetic company creating lifelike hands for customers. They'd scan the patient's whole hand, we'd make a cavity mold of a mirror image, from which they'd pour a lifelike covering for the prosthetic. With the build quality of our processes, the detail was amazing and even included fingerprints!

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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