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Finding the Intersection of Metal 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing

Rachel Hunt
By Rachel Hunt Product Marketing Manager, 3D Printing Protolabs

Medical product developers are working hard to solve real, and often complex, challenges. We certainly saw this play out in 2020 as designers and engineers worked hard to rethink and mobilize a supply chain to address the needs of our healthcare system amidst a pandemic. 3D printing—a complementary manufacturing method in the medical community’s tool bag—has certainly played a critical role in solving some of these complex challenges.

ForgTin is a patented medical device that helps people with tinnitus to re-experience silence. The multifunctional hook is easy to apply and reduces ear noises. (Provided by ForgTin)

With emergency authorization being handed down by the FDA, medical device makers became even more agile in quickly formulating their manufacturing strategies. Companies that have begun to integrate an additive strategy into their supply chains are going to be well positioned as they bring new devices to market, iterate on those already in market, and rethink manufacturing strategies for legacy parts.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the invention of metal 3D printing in the mid-’90s and its subsequent rise over the next few decades. Wohlers Associates—an independent firm that provides additive manufacturing expertise and insights into 3D printing trends—predicts that we are seeing “just the tip of the iceberg” in medical additive manufacturing. As we see companies making critical investments in additive strategies, we are excited for what’s in store.

Getting Started is Not Difficult

There are a number of service bureaus that support metal 3D printing and its production capabilities with known medical materials such as 316L stainless steel, cobalt chrome Co28Cr6Mo, and titanium Ti6Al4V. Medical designers want parts to build correctly. Ensuring that these parts are well designed for the machine and material they are using with a service bureau is a great way to test the waters before making production commitments. An added bonus is that service bureaus, just like metal 3D printing itself, have come a long way in recent years. Protolabs, for example, has a global capacity of more than 45 in-house metal 3D printers to support any prototype or production use case you may have. Furthermore, companies like GE Additive provide 3D printing consulting, and research universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. offer additive production courses.

Leveraging Additive Experts

One key benefit of working with service bureaus is their experience with many different parts. For example, Protolabs has seen more than a million 3D-printed part geometries. Entrepreneurs such as Klaus Grübl worked with Protolabs’ Europe to develop a medical device to solve a complex challenge. Chronic tinnitus, a condition that results in ringing or buzzing in the ears, personally ailed him for 19 years. Grübl’s company, ForgTin (forget tinnitus), is one example of an enterprise implementing a metal additive strategy to solve a complex issue.

Grübl’s team worked to design a personalized device that uses direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) to create complex 316L stainless steel components. DMLS was required to achieve the customizable fit for the outer ear. “It was clear to us early on that there was no getting around 3D printing,” explained Grübl. “Immediately after we uploaded the design data to the Protolabs’ website, we received initial suggestions for manufacturing feasibility and improvement from engineers. After our first conversation, we already knew that we were in good hands with Protolabs, but this step has finally initiated series production.”

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