Why is 3D printing such a hot topic?
MPN editor Laura Hughes sat down with two of the industry’s experts to discuss how 3D printing is transforming plastics manufacturing.
Laura Hughes was joined by the following 3D printing experts:
• Elliot Street, co-founder and CEO of Inovus Medical, a medical device manufacturer
• Simon van de Crommert, sales manager UK/Ireland/Benelux for 3D Systems, an organisation that engineers, manufactures and sells 3D printers
1. There is a real buzz around 3D printing within the medical field. Do you think medical device manufacturers are all now familiar with the term?
Street: I think the majority of manufacturers will be aware of the term 3D printing, but I do not feel there is a widespread understanding of the variations of the technology. There is still a lot of awareness to be gained of the variants of the technology and how the different types of 3D printing can be utilised for different aspects of device manufacture.
van de Crommert: Plastic 3D printing has been embraced by a variety of industries since our own co-founder and CTO, Chuck Hull, invented the technology more than 30 years ago. From 3D Systems’ engagement with the medical community, we’ve seen a keen interest in the technologies in medical device manufacturing, as well as patient-specific models, personalised surgical tools and instruments. We’ve also seen the adoption of plastic 3D printing in the dental industry.
2. How can plastics manufacturers within the medical sector be encouraged to use 3D printing?
Street: Better education on the application of the various forms of 3D printing will highlight to many manufacturers how they can replace existing manufacturing techniques with 3D printing. Many manufacturers we speak to are not aware of the ability to use technology such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printing for production level manufacturing.
van de Crommert: I believe the encouragement comes from seeing other manufacturers within the industry integrating the technology into their production workflow and realising the benefits. A manufacturer first needs to partner with a company that possesses deep expertise in 3D printing to determine if the technology is appropriate for their business needs. If it is, then the appropriate solution can be developed beginning with the material, then the technology.
This is exactly the experience Inovus had with 3D Systems. They visited our stand at an exhibition, and Inovus was in need of a cost-effective low-volume production method to help reduce the product development cycle and accelerate time to market. Having identified their application challenge, 3D Systems identified that SLS was the best solution for them as it produces strong functional nylon parts at a very competitive price compared to traditional technologies such as plastic injection moulding.
3. What are the main challenges surrounding 3D printing for manufacturers?
Street: Many of the medical devices manufactured are high volume, low value items, and as such the main challenge we see for widespread adoption of 3D printing in the medical device industry is the ability to scale 3D printing to facilitate high volume manufacturing.
van de Crommert: The biggest challenge we see medical device manufacturers experience is around certification. In many countries, for certain types of parts, the workflow and platform must undergo certification. As part of this workflow, manufacturers must also use certified materials - ISO 10993-5 and -10 standards for biocompatibility (cytotoxicity, sensitisation and irritation), and USP class VI. This is important for all general medical applications as the parts come into contact with the skin and are required to meet requirements for biocompatibility, sterilisation and/or thermal resistance.
While the process of certifying a workflow can be overwhelming, this is another area where selecting an experienced partner can help. 3D Systems has certified customer innovation centers where we collaborate with customers to tune applications and design workflows. We rely on this experience and expertise to help our customers navigate the process.
4. Do you think there are still many lessons to be learned about 3D printing?
Street: Yes. I feel the main lessons are around the application of the various types of 3D printing for different product types and for different stages of manufacturing. It was a steep learning curve for us when we were looking to adopt 3D printing as a frontline manufacturing technology and the answers on the best form of printing to use are not always immediately apparent.
van de Crommert: While industrial manufacturing has been around for centuries, 3D printing has only been around for a few decades. This makes it a relatively young industry. We’ve seen tremendous advancements happen in materials, hardware and software over the years, and I believe this innovation will not slow any time soon. From 3D Systems’ perspective, the company was founded on a spirit of curiosity and a desire to innovate in order to help our customers with their business challenges. I think there are always opportunities to learn and grow and continue to help our customers maintain their competitive advantage.