The 3D Printing Revolution You Have Not Heard About
From bones to guns, 3D printing’s route to mainstream consciousness (and media notoriety) has largely consisted of fantastic objects made using the technology.
Not many, however, have reported of a prosaic, medical object made using this technology. If you wear a hearing aid, chances that you are already part of the 3D printing revolution. This is because your hearing aid was, probably, 3D-printed.
According to Phil Reeves, author of a report on the 3D printing industry, there are more than 10,000,000 3D printed hearing aids in circulation worldwide. Jenna Franklin, marketing associate with EnvisionTEC, a leading manufacturer of 3D printers for the hearing aid industry, claims that a majority of hearing aids in the world are manufactured using 3D printers.
A big reason for this transformation is due to the fact that 3D printers have converted a manual , labor-intensive industry into an automated one.
From Generic To Custom And From Nine Steps To Three
The earlier process to manufacture hearing aids consisted of approximately nine steps that ranged from making cast moulds to converting them into ear impressions to trimming the final shell. Hearing aid manufacturers employed artisans and set up hand shops to execute the process, which took more than a week.
Hearing aids fashioned with this process were mostly alike. Their similarity was reflected in fitment issues for the final product. “They might fit in nicely within the ear or wriggle around due to loose fittings,” says Franklin.
Custom fits are no longer an issue with 3D printed hearing aids. Nor is time.
A 3D Printed Hearing Aid
According to Chad Fauks, manager of global digital sourcing at Starkey, a Minnesota-based manufacturer of hearing aids, the process of sculpting and moulding the final product can now be completed within a day. “It has introduced more science into what was earlier an art form,” he says.
3D printing has shortened the hearing aid manufacturing process to three steps: scanning, modeling, and printing.
In the new digitized process, the audiologist scans the ear using a 3D scanner to create an ear impression using lasers. The scan, which creates approximately creates 100,000 to 150,000 points of reference using digital cameras, is sent to the technician or modeler, who applies templates and geometric shapes to the impression.
During this step, the technician tests multiple combinations and geometric patterns for the hearing aid customizing it for specific groups of customers. Subsequently, shells are printed using resin and are fitted with the necessary acoustic vents and electronics. 3D printers manufacture shells rapidly, once the technician is finished modeling them. For example, EnvisionTEC’s printers can print 65 hearing aid shells or 47 hearing aid moulds within 60 to 90 minutes. The printing speed helps manufacturers scale and adjust demand to supply. In addition, the digital file helps modelers adjust and reuse ear impressions to correct for errors. In other words, 3D printers enable rapid prototyping and manufacture.
Ten Years In The Making
The surprising thing about this process is that the transformation has gone largely unnoticed for the last ten years.
Materialise,a 3D printing services company, is a pioneer in this space. The Belgium-based company collaborated with Phonak, a Swiss hearing aid manufacturer, to develop the Rapid Shell Modeling or RSM process back in 2000. According to Franky de Schouwer, website manager with the company, the combination of specialized 3D printers with scanners at audiologists enabled localization of the manufacture of hearing aids. “This evolution allowed taking care of thousands of patients,” he wrote in an email response.
Similarly, EnvisionTEC has developed its own process called Digital Shell Modeling or DSM and has been working in conjunction with Phonak since 2005. Earlier this year, Denmark-based Widex manufactured the world’s smallest hearing aid using CAMISHA or Computer Aided Manufacturing of Individual Shells For Hearing Aids.
Starkey began evaluating the use of 3D printing technology for manufacturing hearing aids back in 1998. After introducing 3D printers into their manufacturing process ten years ago, the company has ramped up to 30 printers across seven facilities worldwide.
Fauks says 98 percent of hearing aids made by the company are manufactured using Stereolithography Printers or SLAs, a type of 3D printers. The remaining two percent are not made with 3D printers due to medical reasons and complicated form factors.
Driving Down Costs? Not Quite
Typically, the use and introduction of technology in a labor-intensive industry promotes efficiency and reduces costs. This is especially important in an industry where product prices have increased by eight percent annually on an average for the last 20 years. However, the case is a complicated one in the $2 billion hearing aid industry that is predicted to grow at an annual rate of 2.8 percent between 2013 to 2016.
While machines reduce labor charges and optimize efficiency, they increase capital investment costs for hearing aid manufacturers. No wonder then, opinions are divided on whether 3D printers can drive down manufacturing prices for hearing aids.
De Schouwer from iMaterialise says the use of 3D printers in the hearing aid industry has driven down manufacturing costs for In-The-Ear or ITE hearing aids. “The digitized and automated process using RSM has saved time and effort for manufacturers,” he says. He adds that hearing aid 3D printers are significantly cheaper than most industrial grade 3D printers.
While it has streamlined production and introduced consistency into the manufacturing process at Starkey, 3D printing processes have also increased capital investment costs at Starkey. “The cost of the machinery and software is expensive,” says Fauks.
Depending on the build size and complexity, the cost of a hearing aid 3D printer can vary from anywhere between $20,000 to $150,000. “Those are ballpark figures on both ends,” says Franklin from EnvisionTec.
Austen Sherman, an IBIS standard analyst who authored a report on the hearing aid industry, says the introduction of 3D printers in the production process has the “potential” to drive down costs. Given that most markups occur at the retail level, however, he adds that it is difficult to estimate whether those costs are realized in the short-term or long-term.