Earlens Corporation, an innovative light-driven hearing technology company, leveraged additive manufacturing process to help manufacturer its custom-built hearing aids. Earlens’ product converted sound to light using a special light-sensitive lens. This lens made direct contact with a patient’s eardrum and activated the patient’s hearing system. Since the hearing aid’s lens needs to make contact with a patient’s eardrum, each product must be custom built with anatomical precision.
Naturally, the need for anatomical precision came with the challenge of scalability. The need to custom built each hearing aid meant that it was impossible to mass produce the hearing aids in the traditional assembly line setting. Also, finding economic ways to map biometric features of a prospective patient and then prototype the hearing aid provided additional challenges.
To address the challenged, Earlens partnered with an additive manufacturing solution provider called Carbon. Carbon provided hardware and software technology that not only provided additive manufacturing that enabled production of hearing aid molds with anatomical precision, but also provided adaptive manufacturing that made quick changes possible. In addition, Carbon integrated software of additive manufacturing with the hardware, allowing easy changes and modifications to the manufacturing process.
Why is additive manufacturing important to Earlens’ product development?
Earlens’ innovative sound-to-light technology created a better hearing aid, because Earlens’ product can eliminate the whistling noise traditional hearing aid had. However, the precise and customized product attribute made commercialization of the product a challenge. Additive manufacturing enable the company to rapidly manufacture high precision hearing aid molds and to manufacturer a large number of individual, idiosyncratic molds. Both of the speed and flexibility helped to make Earlens’ hearing aid a commercial possibility.
In contrast to additive manufacturing, traditional manufacturing processes such as injection molding and casting posed two challenges. First, traditional manufacturing processes were too inflexible and time consuming. Elaborate setup were required to manufacture only one customized hearing aid mold. Second, traditional manufacturing processes had challenges in meeting specific geometric and physical attributes of the product.
Carbon, Earlens’ manufacturing partner, had an additive manufacturing solution that address the precision requirement for hearing aids, but also provided flexibility as the manufacturing process was guided by software design, allowing the production process to seamlessly change between different fittings of hearing aids.
What is the organization doing to address this issue in the short term and medium term?
Earlens’ is currently using additive and adaptive manufacturing to produce the mold for hearing aids with high levels of accuracy and precise specifications. Over the medium term, Earlens’ may use additive and adaptive manufacturing to directly produce their hearing aid, thereby reducing cost and improving speed.
Also, according to hearingtracker.com, a hearing aid product review site, physical comfort of Earlens’ hearing aid only had an approval of 41%, the lowest among ten other attributes (such as hearing improvement, benefit on the phone, clear and natural sound, etc). Additive manufacturing may be the solution to Earlens’ problem – precision manufacturing, along with software driven, technology enabled biometric (ear shape) mapping tools may allow Earlens produce the items that offers patients with better comfort.
What other steps do you recommend the organization’s management take to address this issue in the short and medium term?
I would recommend the management of Earlens’ to improve connectivity and reduce customer experience friction between diagnosis, fitting, and use. The goal should be making the three elements (diagnosis, fitting, and use) an easy, integrated experience. Ideally, Earlens should acquire mapping and analytics capability, through in-house R&D, acquisition, or partnership. A potential idea is to have Earlens mail a wearable diagnostic toolkit to a prospective user; the diagnostic toolkit would test hearing capability, map biometrics of the patient, and provide immediate cost estimate, manufacturing timeline, and potential in-patient consultation for hearing aid installation.
In the context of this organization, what are one or two important open questions related to this issue that you are unsure about that merit comments from your classmates?
First, I’m not sure whether rapid diagnosis, real time cost estimate, and immediate consultation have much value add to a prospective patient. I think functionality, product education, and marketing will be more important for the end users.
Second, it is unsure to me whether additive manufacturing can manufacture implant hearing aid with desired surface attributes, texture, and strength requirement.
- “Earlens Light-Driven Hearing Aid | Product Info, Reviews, Prices, Videos, And More”. 2018. Hearingtracker.Com. https://www.hearingtracker.com/hearing-aids/earlens-light-driven.
- “Earlens | Earlens Device”. 2018. Earlens.Com. https://earlens.com/the-earlens-device/.
- “Adaptive Manufacturing: Earlens Case Study – Carbon”. 2018. Carbon. https://www.carbon3d.com/stories/adaptive-manufacturing-earlens-case-study/.