Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, already has begun to revolutionize how medical devices and other medical products are made, distributed, sold, and used. By printing layers of material on top of one another using a variety of materials, 3D printing allows for the manufacture of products whose forms are more fluid or organic, and whose structural integrity is the same as or greater, than traditional manufactured products.
According to a 2014 PwC survey, one-third of all manufacturers are adopting 3D printing. The medical device industry is no exception. Already, 3D-printed medical products such as customized implants, prosthetics, casts, teeth, and hearing aids are under development or commercially available. The FDA has approved or cleared more than 85 devices made using 3D printers. Where and how is 3D printing changing the medical device industry, and what does the future hold?
According to a PwC survey, about 30 percent of all manufacturers believe that the greatest disruption from widespread adoption of 3D printing will be the restructuring of supply chains. The potential to shrink the supply chain may be driven by a new approach to inventory – printed parts that currently are produced and warehoused could instead be manufactured where and when they are needed, saving manufacturers the carrying costs of raw materials, work-in-progress and finished goods.[i]
Unlike a traditional manufacturing process configured to create specific components, 3D printers can make a wide range of parts. This flexibility allows supply chain investments to be spread across multiple parts or products. The implementation of customized, just-in-time manufacturing also has profound impacts on supply chain cost structures, enabling manufacturers to provide more useful products without increasing the cost of care.
The need for forward stocking locations may be eliminated entirely, meaning that, while medical device manufacturers may benefit from 3D printing, their distribution partners will face new challenges.
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