Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Vital Signs – the potential of 3D printing now it’s an established industry



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Christoph Erhardt is the Manager of Additive Manufacturing Metal for Protolabs in Europe. He has nearly a decade’s experience in 3D Printing and managing one of the world’s fastest-growing additive manufacturing facilities. Here he explores why 3D printing has many of the answers to the medical sector’s current manufacturing challenges

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Validation and trust – two critical factors that every supplier into the medical sector must deliver on. And it’s not difficult to see why. Failure to meet the exacting standards can end up in tragic loss of life, while potential legal cases off the back of it can run into millions of pounds. A product recall isn’t really an option when you are dealing with implants.

These two attributes are also challenges that the 3D printing industry has been coming to terms with for some time, pretty much since our form of manufacturing started to edge its way into the everyday industrial dictionary. It’s been an evolving journey, but the continued maturity of the production process now means we are able to address the challenges the industry continues to present us with.

At the very start, we had to prove we were not just a fashionable newcomer that all the designers and innovators wanted to play with. This was successfully achieved with a process designed to make custom implants since they required less regulation and the customer could learn about our process and the possibilities it presented.

Next on the list was convincing designers and manufacturers that we could offer a commercially viable means of prototyping, a train of thought we have managed to accelerate through our speed to market and by taking a lot of the cost out of the ‘iteration’ process.

In recent years, we have successfully ventured into using 3D printing and additive manufacturing to make complex production components at low volume, a capability not purely reserved for the digital manufacturing frontrunners of aerospace and the hugely price sensitive world of automotive.

Complexity embraced

We have come a long way since the early stage implants and, these days, nearly 100 per cent of our projects involve some form of lattice structure to mimic a Ti-Coating or even a bone spongiosa. This can only be achieved using 3D printing, with the advantage of design freedom and additional features on the part simply not possible to manufacture in a traditional way.

A major shift we are seeing is the customer’s desire to create variants of a product so that they can be made more patient-specific. For example, instead of just a couple of different sizes of a part (such as small, medium and large), we can now really differentiate the offer so there are hundreds of different varieties of the same product. Just recently, we have 3D printed over 100 variations of a spinal part that will help improve the lives of thousands of people across the world.

Another trend in the medical sector is the rise in on-demand manufacture, where customers are looking to reduce their inventory and the amount of stock they hold on site. This can support cash flow, as well as eliminating some of the costs around additional storage space.

The importance of sharing

Here at Protolabs, we have developed internal data-sharing processes and integrated additive and subtractive processes – traditionally at opposite ends of the manufacturing process – to transform the production model.

Our use of advanced 3D printing, CNC machining and injection moulding technologies to produce custom-designed parts and prototypes in days means we have been able to reduce costs and manufacturing lead times to levels which open up global markets to a huge range of new, pioneering innovators.

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We can be sent a CAD design of a part or prototype one day and have a working model ready for delivery the next thanks to our own bespoke software and high-levels of data sharing that boosts automation.

How does this work? In a nutshell, the information from the integrated part quoting and tool-pathing systems is automatically shared with the production floor, where video displays allow workers to see real-time information on job queues, setup requirements, production, and quality metrics.

Likewise, status information is automatically collected as jobs progress through the manufacturing process and then fed back into the MRP and inventory control systems.

It’s a closed-loop system, one that requires less human intervention on the production floor and more support from our design analysis function. This reduces manufacturing costs, increases throughput and gives management the much-needed data to make intelligent decisions.

The almost infinite variety of objects – and iterations of those objects – that 3D printing can produce means there is much less need to carry a lengthy product inventory.

Interest is certainly growing rapidly in digital manufacturing from when I first moved into this field in 2010 after spending a significant amount of time in quality management. The sector excited me and the chance to revolutionise traditional manufacturing was too good an opportunity to turn down.

I still feel the same way today and, if our 40 per cent year-on-year-growth is anything to go by, I’m not the only person in the industry that sees 3D printing as a fundamental driver in helping to give the medical sector the equipment it needs to positively impact millions of lives every year.

Christoph Erhardt

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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