Amos Dudley, a 24 year old digital design student who could not afford the cost of braces from an orthodontist, used a 3D printer to create his own – for a fraction of the cost. This case demonstrates that 3D printing can fundamentally change the manufacturing relationship between companies and consumers. This is not the first we have heard of innovation in the healthcare industry with 3D printers. The latest technologies are using bioprinters to print body parts like ears, muscles, and bones, or are looking into new methods of high-dose medication delivery using powder-liquid three-dimensional printing technology. But in these cases, innovation is led by large healthcare companies, not patients, which makes this story of Amos Dudley so interesting. 3D printing has democratized the manufacturing process, putting the power in consumers’ hands and on their desktops. What does this mean for the healthcare industry? And how will it respond?
In the current climate, the cost of healthcare is a major issue, therefore the conditions are ripe for innovators (“makers” in 3D terms) out there to find cheaper solutions. Another example of this was the case of two makers who teamed up to develop a 3D printed prosthetic hand for a 5-year old boy who was born without fingers on his right hand. The two designers, one from Bellingham, Washington and the other from South Africa, collaborated remotely to design and create the prosthetic hand. It was not long before the boy received his hand and started living a normal life. Apart from the major reduction in cost and time, there was an added benefit of having a personalized solution going forward. As the boy grows, the designs can be easily updated to grow with the boy, and be printed at home.
In these cases, it is easy to see the benefits for the patient, but what about the companies that will be impacted by this? 3D printing is a disruptive technology and we have seen many scenarios where the more traditional and established industries are not sure how to respond. In some cases, disruptive technologies threaten the existence of established companies, (i.e. Uber and the taxi business). However, in other cases, the disruption offers new opportunities for innovation.
One inspirational response to disruption came from within the 3D printing industry itself. 3D printing is not a new technology, and there are major manufacturers, like 3D Systems, who are the leaders with large commercial 3D printers. But when 3D printing disrupters, Makerbot and Formlabs, entered the market, 3DSystems sued Formlabs for patent infringement. At the time, the CEO of 3D Systems, Avi Reichental, decided that this was not the best course of action. Instead, Avi felt that intellectual property protocols and management were outdated. Avi felt that instead of shutting out the consumer 3D printing community behind legal walls, the company should embrace them, invite them in, and establish a cooperative environment for innovation.
It cost Amos $60 to print his braces (he used 3D Printing equipment available at his college and the $60 was for the filament he used to print the braces). If he went to an orthodontist, it would have cost him $8,000. Obviously the cost is higher as it includes the orthodontist’s time and care, which 3D printing cannot replace. But as costs in healthcare continue to be a controversial issue, 3D printing could, in some areas, provide a complimentary solution. The democratization of information increased transparency and with that, changed the relationships between healthcare companies, HCPs, and patients. Now we have the democratization of manufacturing that nudges product control away from manufacturers. This is NOT a bad thing – instead it is an opportunity for healthcare companies to find new platforms to interact with a wider and more engaged group of people, a new set of innovators that have fresh ideas for tackling today’s challenges. There is certainly a concern around the risk of unqualified people creating healthcare-related products, but this should not be a barrier. “Makers” are hungry to innovate and with the right relationship and guidance from healthcare companies, the risks can be overcome.