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The Additive Advantage

Steve Plumb
By Steve Plumb Senior Editor, SME Media

The smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796. Nearly 50 years later, anesthesia was first used in surgery. Decades after that, the electrocardiograph (EKG) debuted in 1914. This was followed by a wave of advances that roared to life in the 1920s, including insulin, heart valve surgery, three-flanged nails for hip fractures and the iron lung, which is credited with saving a polio patient in 1929.

The pace of medical breakthroughs has continued to accelerate over the last 100 years with a seemingly endless array of new technologies, processes and medicines. In some cases, innovations have been driven by necessity, such as vaccines to combat mutating viruses. Other times, equipment for specific industries has been adapted for medical applications—at their best, technical advances are transferred back and forth between industries to help everyone.

To some degree, that’s been the case for additive manufacturing (AM), which is used in everything from aerospace and automotive to construction, energy and consumer products. But some of the earliest and most significant applications are in healthcare.

The same goes for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These emerging smart technologies are used across industries and throughout the product cycle, from r&d to the plant floor—and, in the case of medical applications, to the operating room and even a patient’s body.

To this end, the theme of this month’s issue is medical machining. The coverage starts with Ilene Wolff’s feature article on “Breaking Through with AI.” She notes that AI and ML have become essential to all but the most basic new medical devices, including advanced imaging and remote monitoring systems to diagnostic equipment and wearables.

In our second feature, three members of SME’s Healthcare AM Technical Advisory Team provide their insights on the latest advances, challenges, benefits and opportunities for 3D printing in medical applications. Spoiler alert: The prognosis is very bright, especially when it comes to bioprinting, patient-matched devices, pharmaceutical development, and gene and cellular design. Much like in other industries, there’s also an opportunity for greater efficiency and improved quality through automation.

Meanwhile, Kip Hanson’s feature “Measuring Health” details the world of medical metrology. While there are certainly similarities in other industries, the performance of medical devices is absolutely critical—whether it’s a tiny bony screw or a complex MRI system.

The medical coverage continues with our latest Voices AMplified series, which profiles a pair of industry trailblazers: Annie Wang and Mick Maher. While both have enjoyed immense personal success as entrepreneurs—Maher received last year’s Jud Hall Composites Manufacturing Award—they also are dedicated to helping others better understand and implement AM. Their stories are inspiring on many levels. Enjoy!

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