3D printing's come a long way.
The technology has definitely gone mainstream, now that hobbyists can buy inexpensive devices online and companies are experimenting with everything from food to fashion to cars and housing. But it’s within healthcare that it has the biggest life-changing potential.
Abbott scientists and engineers use 3D printing to develop prototype tools that enhance product development for devices used to treat vascular disease. They evaluate the early-stage design of tools that improve people's vision*. And they prototype parts used in next-generation medical diagnostics.
In fact, these 3D-printed items could make it faster, more innovative, less expensive and more efficient to develop new medical devices and products—all with the ultimate goal of helping people live longer, healthier lives. At a time when personalized and customizable medicine is taking center stage, 3D printing technology today points to increasingly sophisticated uses tomorrow.
3D printing—or "additive manufacturing," as it's sometimes called—converts a digital CAD (computer aided design) file into a three-dimensional structure by laying down layer after layer of thin material such as resin or plastic, which is often cured with ultraviolet light.
3D printer housed in Abbott’s diagnostics business in Santa Clara, California.
Moving faster by leveraging learnings across Abbott
Earlier this year, Abbott's Scientific Governing Board—made up of senior scientific leaders from across the company’s different focus areas—launched a 3D Task Force headed by John Capek, executive vice president, Ventures, and Jamey Jacobs, divisional vice president of global product development for Abbott’s vascular business.
The 3D Task Force's mission? "To identify and leverage best practices and learnings from around Abbott, helping everyone to move faster and smarter," and, said Jacobs, "to discover where can we find the cutting edge of 3D capabilities outside Abbott that could provide technically advanced solutions."
With just a CAD file, a physical piece takes shape "directly from the engineer's design file without requiring a machinist to translate the drawings into a prototype using traditional machine shop tools—something that would take days or weeks," Jacobs added. "You can get complex, quick working models and fail or succeed fast. It also allows new solutions because you can 3D-print something that couldn’t possibly be machined. It can truly revolutionize our design capabilities."
Working across Abbott’s different medical device businesses—including those focused on vascular, vision care, diabetes and diagnostics—is paying off, said Senior Volwiler Research Fellow Syed Hossainy, who leads the 3D printing initiative within Abbott's vascular division. Brainstorms with colleagues from the vision and diabetes care businesses about the challenges in their fields led to 3D-printing breakthrough ideas.
In addition to working with each other, Capek challenged the businesses to partner with emerging external resources—start-up firms and forward-thinking organizations—that are pushing innovation in the 3D space, especially when it comes to patient-specific advances. In fact, Abbott's vascular R&D team recently worked with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Dr. Anthony Atala, one of the world's leading regenerative medicine researchers, to prototype a 3D-printed bioabsorbable heart support device that's customized for a patient's own anatomy and function. "In the future," said Hossainy, "a device like this has real potential to benefit people with advanced congestive heart failure."
3D printer at Abbott’s diagnostics business in Santa Clara, California.
Bringing 3D-printed devices to life, for life
Among the ways this technology’s taking shape at Abbott:
3D-printed prototype of a patented hematology analyzer, which runs automated tests on blood samples. This device allowed engineers from Abbott’s diagnostics business to model parts of the assembly and test the concept before production.
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* Editor's Note: Abbott divested its vision business to Johnson & Johnson on February 27, 2017.
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