Additive Manufacturing: Enhancing Medical Technology
In the medical technology space, additive manufacturing, more commonly referred to as “3D printing,” is pushing companies to reimagine their innovation cycles, product development processes, and patient reach methods. 3D printing is a type of manufacturing process that uses a digital model to create a 3D object out of virtually any material; compared to traditional manufacturing, 3D printing has enabled researchers and engineers to quickly test and prototype new designs that ultimately can be used by doctors and surgeons . Even through its financial ups and downs, one company in particular, General Electric (GE), has embraced 3D printing technology and is rapidly working to integrate the advancements that it can provide across many of its services, subsidiaries, and partner organizations.
GE: Using Scale to Pave the Way
Historically, surgeons, especially those in the orthopedic space, have taken relatively standard items – such as knee replacements that are not individually customized – and have shaped the knees or joints of patients around the objects. Though each patient is clearly unique, surgeons have had limited choices in implant sizes or shapes to address individual concerns, which has ultimately increased patient discomfort and prolonged healing time in many cases . Many smaller organizations such as Materialise and MedPrin have tried to tackle this clear healthcare issue but have relied significantly on smaller-scale fundraising efforts and labs . GE, a massive global conglomerate, has been able to quickly enter this market partially due to its size and prevalence across multiple technology advancements.
Figure 1: 3D Printed Orthopedic Implant 
In the short-term, GE has doubled-down its efforts to address some of the major challenges in medical technologies by launching GE Additive (an advanced manufacturing arm of GE) and opening a European 3D Printing and Design Center in Sweden to conduct research on the technology, its applications, and its potential risks . For companies like GE, speed-to-market and company reputation for innovation are incredibly valuable considerations in product development; however, a typical medical device product introduction can take many months to years from initial prototyping to launch, given the use of traditional stage-gate processes and multiple decision points .
In the long-term, GE has begun testing viable ways to shorten the entire company’s innovation cycles and bring healthcare products to market much faster and more reliably through key partnerships. In 2018, GE announced a partnership with Stryker, one of the world’s largest medical devices companies, to improve patient outcomes and bring forward digital innovation in health, specifically through surgeries. Over the course of many years, GE aims to bring 3D printing machines, materials, and services to help Stryker’s global supply chain . It is clear that GE has realized the significant positive impacts that 3D printing could have on a company’s manufacturing process, if implemented effectively. GE Healthcare’s Manager of Additive Engineering, Andreas Marcstrom, highlighted that a 3D printed part can “combine 20 parts into a single part and improve performance simultaneously” . These tangible manufacturing process benefits, coupled with the increased ability to customize parts for patients based on their specific needs, has made GE a known entity at the forefront of medical innovation.
Figure 2: GE’s 3D printing orthopedic process [partial] 
The Future is Bright, but Unproven
In the long-run, my recommendation for GE is threefold:
- Focus on using GE’s reputation and strength in manufacturing and innovation to continue to develop strong partnerships with healthcare companies that can bring cutting-edge technologies to patients. By diversifying the product mix from orthopedics to other types of implants and therapies, GE can make a significant positive impact on the lives of thousands of patients.
- Develop global relationships with regulators to help them create accurate policies that further enhance progress and safety without stifling innovation and fast-paced technologies. Doing so will be critical if GE wants to bring revolutionary products to market without being slowed down for a lack of understanding.
- Build a team dedicated to understanding how to scale 3D printing globally. GE needs to invest in understanding how to reduce existing production and delivery costs to consistently meet personalized demand and ultimately leverage just-in-time manufacturing.
Looking ahead, GE and other companies looking to dive into the 3D printing space will need to ask and answer a couple of critical questions: How can we use 3D printing to make the lives of people who cannot afford high-end medical treatments better? How can companies build in the use of digital technology and manufacturing into their supply chains from the beginning to avoid late-stage implementation and replacement costs?
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