Medical Goes Additive: How Social Networks Are Humanizing the 3D Printing Industry

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It seems so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said, but the activities of machines can only ever be, at most, half of what defines a technology. The remainder of the definition — at least half — is determined by human beings.

With all the specters of AI, machine learning (ML), and general automation rearing their heads lately, it’s increasingly common for conversations surrounding emergent technologies to leave out the human component—except for the also still too infrequently asked question, “How afraid should workers be about being replaced?” In terms of trends involving positive symbioses between humans and technology, though, there are, probably justifiably, not many at the forefront of most people’s minds these days.

I am not a techno-optimist. However, its compatibility with human ingenuity and collaboration is one reason I am more optimistic about additive manufacturing (AM) than I am about most other examples of next-generation digitization. And of all the AM market segments, medical may provide the most striking evidence of the potential for harmonious feedback loops between humanity and machines, given the direct impact that medical applications have on dramatically improving peoples’ lives.

One individual who epitomizes that optimistic development is Dr. Cora Lüders-Theuerkauf, head of Medical at the Germany-based AM network, Mobility Goes Additive (MGA). MGA Medical was started in 2019, and is now comprised of six working groups that bring together corporations and institutions from around the world, to collaborate, troubleshoot, and advise one another on common issues that arise in medical 3D printing. I recently interviewed Lüders-Theuerkauf, a doctorate in biochemistry who worked for almost 20 years at the German Heart Institute in Berlin, to find out more about the way AM’s mainstreaming is being driven by the success of social networks:

Dr. Cora Lüders-Theuerkauf. Image courtesy of MGA

“Networks are the [Alpha and Omega] of everything,” Lüders-Theuerkauf told me. “If you don’t know what others are doing, you can’t be very successful. I think it’s absolutely necessary to work together and join projects to push the whole topic. And if you do this together, you are more efficient in your work. You can save costs if you share, for example…[and] it’s quite easier to bring your product into market. …We are a neutral platform where potential competitors on the market can meet in a fair way here in our network. And they can discuss more global problems like regulatory hurdles, or they can develop new materials together.”

Lüders-Theuerkauf has firsthand experience with this set of topics, from multiple angles. In addition to an awareness of the benefits achievable with a network in place, the biologist also knows what it’s like to feel a need to ask others for help, and simply not have many options available.

“I was the head of the tissue engineering lab [at the German Heart Institute], and we developed scaffolds based on resorbable polymers for heart valves. …And this was this reason why I got into contact with [AM] 10 years ago,” Lüders-Theuerkauf explained. “I was looking for an exact geometry of the scaffold, and no one could provide that at that moment. …I wish I had [MGA Medical] during my research career because I had no network, and it was such a pity because I knew only three, four other groups surrounding me that were more or less competent in their fields. But I didn’t know more. And if I knew more, I could’ve been more successful, and faster, with my results.”

Prototype of a functionally integrated hip implant. Image courtesy of MGA and MUGETO

Moreover, as so often seems to be the case with AM industry professionals who got into the field either before or during the beginning of the desktop printing boom in the early 2010s, networking itself is largely responsible for the trajectory that Lüders-Theuerkauf’s career has taken. During a time when she was looking for another research job, following the completion of one of the projects she’d worked on, Lüders-Theuerkauf met the head of MGA, Stefanie Brickwede, who ended up asking the biologist to start MGA Medical. Pivotally, this was in 2019: thus, the network was in place when the pandemic began, an unprecedented catalyst for the acceleration of corporate entry into the medical manufacturing market, including medical AM.

“There are more and more companies working on both [mobility and medical] because during COVID, they saw that the supply chain from their original industry broke. …it was necessary for them to look for new fields. And so they discovered the medical field. And now there are lots of companies focusing on [medical] branches, which is quite an interesting feature. …[T]here are so many suppliers, materials suppliers, originally focused on the automotive sector, [for example,] and now they are also focused on the medical sector. …[T]he pandemic was the starting point to think about new technologies and new materials, to develop [them] a little bit faster and to overcome limitations in the supply chain…There were less suppliers who could deliver everything, and they were not connected. …[The hope is] for the next pandemic, it will be a little bit better.”

MGA Network office team. Image courtesy of MGA

To be sure, that sort of crisis doesn’t solely come in the form of a pandemic, either. Expectedly, Lüders-Theuerkauf mentioned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well, which of course continues to be a far more immediate concern in Europe than it is in the rest of the world. Whatever the emergency, half the work of preparation is already done by a network’s having been established in advance. Now, the natural competitiveness bred by the habit of seeking ever-greater profits may mean that companies still have skepticism and awkwardness to work past when it comes to sharing information. But Lüders-Theuerkauf is encouraged by the unity she sees on display by MGA Medical members:

“My idea — maybe it’s naïve — but my idea is if we work together, and share only a part of what we are doing, we are more successful in what we are doing…more efficient, and faster. And I think there are more benefits if you open yourself and your mind a little bit. …I did this during my time in research, where I was the only one offering results on a conference, for example. And everybody said, ‘Oh my God, what is she doing? She’s telling us something!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I get new ideas if I share my ideas with others.’ And now they can be in a discussion with me. So I have new ideas for my next research project, for example. So my benefit is bigger than if I say nothing.”

Thus, at least in an insurgent field like AM, which already has legacy manufacturing to serve as a logical focal point for channeling competitive impulses toward, companies in the same space are starting to come around to the idea that there’s more to be gained by friendship than animus. This sense of camaraderie is going to be increasingly crucial to cultivate, as more and more newcomers enter the industry. And the key to ensuring the success of AM’s greater incorporation into everyday life is the presence in the sector of people like Dr. Cora Lüders-Theuerkauf, whose main assets lie even more so in being personable than they do in technical proficiency.

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