Fifteen years ago, EnvisionTEC 3D printed hearing aids for Sonova’s Phonak brand, and the company found that the technology was capable of producing better-fitting, more comfortable, customized devices than the traditional manufacturing technologies it had been using before. The rest of the industry saw this and decided to switch to 3D printing as well – in less than two years, traditional manufacturing techniques had been virtually eliminated from the hearing aid industry in favor of 3D printing.
While 3D printing is having an impact on almost every industry, it’s not often that you see it completely take over an industry.
At Sonova’s Aurora Operations and Distribution Center (AODC), the factory is full of EnvisionTEC Perfactory 3D printers, each of which 3D prints about two dozen 3D printed hearing aid shells every hour. In all, Sonova owns more than 100 EnvisionTEC printers that are deployed throughout its global production facilities.
Technicians at AODC use scanners to turn silicone impressions of patients’ ears into digital files and then use special software to design the shells, which are each specially customized to each individual patients’ ears, both left and right, for a secure, comfortable fit. According to Michael Walter, Director of Operations and Finance at AODC, Sonova 3D prints thousands of hearing aid shells every day, which equates to millions per year.
“We operate two shifts with over 500 employees,” said Mujo Bogaljevic, Vice President of Operations at Sonova US. “I’m very proud that we were the first one to bring this new 3D technology into on-demand manufacturing. We have completely transformed the way custom hearing aids are made. Today, EnvisionTEC technology is the standard in our industry.”
Sonova was one of the earliest companies to show how 3D printing could be used as a means of mass production – and an effective one. Previously, if the company wanted to make custom hearing aids, it would handcraft them in a process that was expensive, long and laborious. 3D printing them is not only far faster, easier, and cheaper, it’s more effective – the 3D printed shells Sonova is making today fit better, are more comfortable, and have more space for embedded microelectronics. Both patients and audiologists report higher satisfaction.
“Not too long ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a certain shoe company … and how it was going to use 3D printing to print one kind of very special shoe. It made me smile,” said Bill Lesiecki, Director of Business Services at Sonova. “Because for more than 10 years, we’ve been using this technology not to create some one-off or specialized item, we create all of our custom hearing instruments this way.”
Sonova turned to EnvisionTEC for 3D printed hearing aid shells about 15 years ago, when few people had yet heard of 3D printing. EnvisionTEC had just released its Perfactory 3D printer, which is now in its fourth generation. Sonova was dissatisfied with its current means of producing custom hearing aids; besides the cost, time and effort, the end products didn’t always fit well. The company was intrigued by the capability of 3D printing to produce hearing aids that were precisely matched to a patient’s ear canal, as well as to hold different kinds of electronics.
The two companies worked together to develop biocompatible, safe 3D printing materials that wouldn’t cause irritation to patients.
“We needed a vendor that was going to be willing to work with us because we knew we were going to learn as we went along. Nobody was doing this yet,” Lesiecki said. “We needed a vendor that was going to want to be a true partner.”
EnvisionTEC proved to be that partner, and today Sonova is the top company in the hearing aid industry. Hearing aid professionals mail in silicone impressions of patients’ ear canals, which are scanned to create digital files. A custom design is then created with special software, including placement of electronics.
“It’s really important that we accurately reproduce that impression in order to make sure that we wind up with a very comfortable fit for the patient and good retention in their ear,” Lesiecki said. “There are ears that are very, very challenging…3D printing is made for that kind of customization, so it can really have an impact.”
The final design is sent to a Perfactory 3D printer and printed, with identifying numbers to make sure it goes to the right patient and distinguishes between the left and right ear. The shells are then removed from the print tray, cleaned, and assembled with all necessary electronics. They are then tested for quality control and sent to the patients.
“We are in an amazing business,” Bogaljevic said. “What we produce here helps people to hear better, and that is truly life changing for them.”
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