As we’ve seen in this series, there are a number of clusters of success in 3D printing. Where we can see small, unique, drop-in, disruptive and sidestep parts, we have success. Beyond that, however, we’ve also seen that there are a lot of hopeful searches for 3D printing applications.
Here, opinion often coalesces early around one opinion and this part is then made. The component could save weight and, if it was on a satellite, this would be amazing and it would work. But, outside a few critical environments where mass is a premium, the part will actually not really be as successful as first hoped.
In order to break through in many more cases in which millions of items are 3D printed, we will need to seek success in stacking. Stacking is a case where we keep searching once we’ve found that one application that makes sense. With stacking, we keep looking once we’ve found our dream part for additive. With stacking, we will have many strong clusters of components that we may make successful.
We will then look not just at one advantage that 3D printing can provide, but see if we can make many work together. With stacking, items can break out of the confines of the critical and make sense in many industries. To explain the benefits of stacking, let’s look at one of the biggest and fastest growing areas of 3D printing: orthopedics.
In orthopedics, 3D printing:
- Is cheaper
- Is quicker for iterating and developing new products
- Has seen more solutions tested, tried, and evaluated
- Is a better product/market fit or better solution
- Plays well with new software for digital advantage
- Could make group-specific/niche implants less expensive
- Has an advantage in osseointegration
- Can approximate the modulus of bone better
- Can reduce mass
- Can make parts that expand, demonstrate wicking, and other positive features, including internal structures that can be adapted to better fit the patient
- Can lead to geometry-specific IP
- Could make patient-specific implants
- Makes optimal use of an expensive material
- Can be industrialized (expensively)
- Can be upgraded
- Can lead to lasting competitive advantage
- Can result in better OE/less steps
- Can produce fewer parts
So, these are some, but not all of the advantages 3D printing has when compared to the manufacturing techniques it replaces. Not all have to be present in every single implant, but we can see that, in the case of orthopedics, we have a lot of them. Also, if we look deeper we can see that these can be tactical, but turn out to be long-lasting, company-specific advantages.
So, in orthopedics, there is a first-mover advantage to adopt AM and also long lasting advantages to be gained from mastering AM. In a lot of cases, some of the below advantages may be of import in your industry, but, in orthopedics, all of the following are relatively important.
Let’s start with the factor that is almost never realized. We’re almost never cheaper. Really and rarely do you find products silly, important, specific or rare enough to be more expensive than a 3D printed variant. In orthopedics, we’re one-tenth of the price of (some) CNC implants because we can make a texture that promotes osseointegration easily. The cost advantage is such that it could in-and-of-itself explain why orthopedics companies are so excited about 3D printing. But, it’s not just a case of them wanting to save money per implant.
Speed and Invention
They also want to be more competitive and with 3D printing they can iterate, test, and develop products more quickly. The quicker pace of iteration leads to faster generation of inventions and geometry-specific IP. But, it also means that the company can invent more shapes and test more shapes to productize the right ones.
By testing things quicker digitally or with the 3D printed part, companies can ascertain, develop, design, test and patent new designs more quickly than others. They can also test more different parts or designs in destructive testing. This will let them find the right solution more often and also eliminate design flaws more readily. This is of crucial import in the orthopedics market where a single design flaw can be incredibly expensive.
Fitting the Application
More testing, more information, more designs and more malleable designs will make for a firm that more quickly develops the right solution for the right application. This can lead to a better solution or a better fit with the market. What’s more, this is important in their industry due to the pace of innovation and quality.
3D printing also plays very well with finite element analysis, digital simulation and calculation software. Simulation that can accurately predict stresses, load-bearing capacity and more can be combined with 3D printing. This let’s you more accurately develop products faster than without a combination of simulation, design and AM. New developments such as musculoskeletal modeling will accelerate this trend. At the same time, 3D scanning may play more of a role in error analysis and the redesign of appropriate structures, which will only accelerate this development. We play better with digital tools because we are digital.
All in all, this means that it is faster to develop new products with 3D printing in orthopedics than without it. With certification and approvals being costly, it helps that a similar logic, similar data, similar process, and the same material and process can accelerate approvals and make them less expensive.
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