Just as the printing press radically transformed the publishing industry, 3D printing is poised to revolutionize supply chains across industries.  For life sciences, the potential for impact is especially great. Every person’s body is unique, but medical implants are often only manufactured in a few different shapes and sizes. Frequently, none of the available models are an exact fit for a specific patient, causing additional pain and a longer recovery time.
With recent technological advances, traditional two-dimensional (2D) medical images, such as x-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance images (MRI), can be converted into digital 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files. These files are sent to 3D printers, which manufacture individualized medical implants, customized to a patient’s particular anatomy.
A Win-Win Situation
The adoption of 3D printing in life sciences supply chains is truly a win-win, providing significant value for all constituents. Patients and physicians benefit from using personalized implants rather than using mass-produced products – procedures are more likely to be successful, with shorter time required in surgery and improved patient results. 
Manufacturers benefit as well, as this new method of production holds the potential increase cost efficiency and enhance productivity. Today, small-batch or custom implants are expensive due to high setup costs, and it can take months to design, test, manufacture, and deliver each type of product. With 3D printing, digital orders can be sent to local printers and produced within a few hours.  This technology facilitates the switch to just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, reducing inventory and enabling supply chains to be more agile. 
Industry leaders are beginning to jump at this opportunity. Within the past couple of years, the importance of 3D printing has doubled among life science supply chain executives. 
3D Printing is Disruptive and Important to Supply Chain Strategy in Healthcare & Pharma
Leading the Charge
Johnson & Johnson (J&J), one of the world’s largest medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers, is at the forefront of 3D printing innovation. Sam Onukuri, head of J&J’s 3D Printing Center of Excellence, spoke of this initiative at October’s TCT show. In his talk, titled ‘The Power of 3D Printing: How this Technology is Blazing New Medical Frontiers,’ he explained, “We touch almost 1 billion customers every day; our supply chain is very complex… [and] personalized products are a big value for us… from an end-to-end perspective, this will be a lower-cost technology.” 
J&J is striving to become an early adopter of this emerging technology by systematically building a pipeline of 3D printed technologies and products. The company is strategically leveraging partnerships with key technology leaders in this space, including Carbon, HP, 3D Systems, Organovo, and Materialise.  J&J has also been acquiring technologies, including the recent acquisition of an innovative platform from Tissue Regeneration Systems, Inc. (TRS). This platform can be used to create custom bone-like implants that have a special coating to help the body with absorption and healing: https://www.jnj.com/innovation/trs 
Looking towards the future, J&J is aiming for a global impact. In remote areas, such as regions of Africa, China, and India, where there is limited infrastructure to manufacture tools and implants, a small 3D printer could make all the difference. A patient could be scanned at a local clinic, their digital scan sent around the world to have a medical implant reverse-designed at J&J, and then the implant could be printed by a local 3D printer. This allows the delivery of complex, customized medical implants without massive infrastructure investments or long delivery lead times. 
Mountains to Climb
While this technology holds great potential, there are many challenges to overcome. J&J is well-positioned with its current focus on building a robust pipeline, and it should continue to push for scientific breakthroughs. Throughout the process, they need to make sure that they are helping regulators to build accurate and beneficial regulation in order to ensure that the speed of development in this new and exciting field doesn’t lead to ineffective quality control procedures. There is a need for testing and certification norms to ensure that patients are never treated with sub-par products.
In order to realize the goals of lower costs and improved access to patient-specific products through distributed 3D printing manufacturing, J&J must also invest heavily in learning how to scale these processes to meet global demand. To truly improve their supply chain, they need to build capabilities to do personalized, localized, JIT manufacturing at scale. Looking forward, J&J will need to ask themselves: How do we capture this incredible potential to deliver customized medical implants, at a lower cost and faster speed, to patients all around the world? There are many mountains to climb as J&J strives to scale this nascent technology to meet the demands of their $1B+ customers.
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 Clare Scott, “Johnson & Johnson Looks Toward a Future of Personalized Medicine Through 3D Printing,” 3DPrint.com, October 12, 2017, https://3dprint.com/190785/johnson-and-johnson-medicine/, accessed November 2017.
 Michael Molitch-Hou, “Johnson & Johnson Adopts Cutting Edge 3D Printing for the Future of Medical Devices,” Engineering.com, September 7, 2016, https://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/13063/Johnson-Johnson-Adopts-Cutting-Edge-3D-Printing-for-the-Future-of-Medical-Devices.aspx, accessed November 2017.
 Sy Mukherjee, “Johnson & Johnson Wants to Use 3D Printing to Heal Broken Bones,” Fortune, April 20, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/04/20/johnson-johnson-3d-printing-bones/, accessed November 2017.
 Signe Brewster, “The Power of 3-D Printing: How This Technology Is Blazing New Medical Frontiers,” Johnson & Johnson, March 27, 2017, https://www.jnj.com/innovation/how-3D-printing-is-blazing-new-medical-frontiers, accessed November 2017.
Cover photo: https://3dprint.com/82272/what-3d-printing-works/