Inevitably, when the subject of 3D printing is broached in a business-to-business setting, the question of hype must be raised. That task fell to Zach Simkin at a conference track devoted to 3D printing at the MD&M East/PLASTEC East events in New York City last week. President of Senvol (New York, NY), a consultancy that compiles 3D printing analytics for businesses, Simkin moderated a panel of experts in the additive manufacturing/3D printing space, promising to "cut through the hype and find what is mechanically and economically viable." My takeaway? 3D printing is reshaping the manufacturing landscape, one layer at a time. No hype about it.
|Image of 3D-printed scoliosis brace courtesy 3D Systems.|
Leading into this session, keynote speaker Katie Weimer, Vice President, Medical Devices, at 3D Systems (Rock Hill, SC), spoke of the "digital thread of information starting with CT scans" and ending with 3D-printed patient-specific medical devices. There should be no debate about the revolutionary thrust of 3D printing in the medical arena, specifically in orthopedics and the fabrication of patient-specific pre-operative models. PlasticsToday has reported extensively on the use of 3D printing to fabricate prosthetic devices, notably for children, at a fraction of the cost of conventional devices. E-nable, which got a shout out from Weimer, has done admirable work in this regard, connecting engineers and the maker community with children who are missing limbs. Check out this video of a 7-year-old boy being gifted with a Star Wars–inspired prosthetic arm for one example.
Surgeons also are enthused by the possibilities the technology affords in rapidly producing pre-operative models that reproduce specific patient anatomies. Before operating on a patient, practitioners are now able to map their surgery by cutting into physical models in the sterile field and ultimately improving outcomes, noted Weimer. This is especially valuable in complex procedures such as cardiac surgery, and it has been used famously in the separation of conjoined twins, most recently in China.
Weimer also made a persuasive case for the use of 3D printing in adding aesthetic value to assistive devices such as scoliosis braces. Scoliosis disproportionately affects young women and conventional braces are quite ugly, she said. Consequently, patient compliance, which is critical in the treatment of this condition, is less than desirable. Weimer showed some examples of "artsy braces" that are more akin to jewelry and reflect a "sense of self by making a personal artistic statement." Patient compliance improves dramatically.
In the three-legged stool that is our healthcare system, "doctors and their patients want the best available technology, hospitals want that, as well, but must factor in cost, and insurance providers are mostly cost-driven," explained Weimer. Medical device OEMs, for their part, want to innovate but must do so in an outcomes-based environment. Even though 3D printing saves time and money and can improve efficiencies, regulators and insurance companies are not there yet, she added. "We are constantly fighting the reimbursement stream and trying to put together a body of evidence to show the value of 3D printing in healthcare," Weimer said.
A panel discussion that followed the keynote placed a greater emphasis on the industrial applications of 3D printing, an area where accusations of hype have had greater resonance. That stems from the recent past, said Erick Wolf, founder of Airwolf 3D (Costa Mesa, CA), a manufacturer of fused deposition modeling printers. "The desktop 3D printer market grew too quickly," said Wolf, "and the technology just wasn't ready. Think of the frustrations people used to have in the early days of ink-jet printers. Industry needs to reeducate consumers and let them know that we are finally getting to the 'click and print' stage," Wolf stressed.
Taking the technology a step further, Jason Jones, founder and CEO of Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies (Plano, TX), outlined a concept that brings together CNC machining and additive manufacturing.
In the company's AMBIT multi-task system, a series of heads and docking systems allow virtually any CNC machine (or robotic platform) to use non-traditional processing heads in the spindle and conveniently change between them. Changeover is completely automated and only takes seconds.
"Our technology allows tooling changeovers to go from subtractive to additive, and it can be retrofitted to most existing CNC machines," Jones told attendees. The company has received numerous accolades, including the inaugural International Additive Manufacturing Award, bestowed by the Association For Manufacturing Technology and the German Machine Tool Builders' Association.
Five years ago, additive manufacturing was largely aspirational, said Jones. "It was like computers without the Internet." While 3D printing continues to have limitations—on the materials side as well as in overall quality compared with injection molded parts—the technology has come a long way, and it keeps advancing by leaps and bounds. The last word from this session at MD&M East/PLASTEC East: Ignore it at your peril.