From three days to three hours with three times the number of prototypes, in-house 3D printing keeps medical device design development competitive.
Prototypes are essential to the medical device design process; they are used to check everything from form, fit, and function to manufacturability. But prototypes can also be difficult to produce when they are small in size or have intricate parts. For Arch Day Design, some of the parts are as small as a staple and measure just 0.020 in. in thickness.
For many years, Arch Day Design outsourced prototyping work to service bureaus because it was not deemed cost effective to purchase a system for in-house use. The cost of the service bureaus, though, was tens of thousands of dollars a year. Though part quality was good, turnaround time was slow, about three days on average. The management at the company looked for a way to not only reduce turnaround time, but cost as well.
“We knew that if we had an in-house system, we could turn around prototypes more quickly and probably reduce our overall costs, but the price points scared us away,” said Tom Weisel, president. “Then a colleague recommended Objet’s Alaris30.”
The Alaris30 Desktop 3D Printer can produce finely detailed, complex geometry printed models with smooth surfaces. The models can have small moving elements, standout text, or other features. Plus, this system is “office-friendly,” so it does not require cleanup or special maintenance and care.
“This printing system was within our budget and produced high-quality parts suitable for medical device work,” said Weisel. “In the past, everything we’d seen was too expensive, had poor quality finish, or just wasn’t accurate enough. The Alaris30 handled 99% of our prototyping needs. With it, we have cut prototype iteration cycles from three days to three hours, depending on the part design. That has allowed us to increase the number of iterations we do by three times, and still get to design freeze more quickly, which shortens our customers’ time to market.”
The design team found the system particularly helpful for handles and mating parts. “We design a lot of handles,” said Weisel. “There’s no real magic to it, except that they have to feel good in someone’s hand. With our 3D printer, we can try a lot of different options to see which ones feel best. It’s hard to tell that on a CAD screen, and when we outsourced prototyping, it just wasn’t feasible for us to try too many things or produce too many prototypes – there wasn’t time.”
Mating parts can be tricky. Now, the design team can do multiple iterations to make sure they get the right click-lock. “The alternative is to have the parts molded – which takes far too long. With the 3D printer, we can do two or three sets of parts in one day and get to a great design quickly,” said Weisel.
“The two biggest benefits to having the Objet printer in-house,” continued Weisel, “are the reduction in turnaround times for rapid prototypes and an improvement in the designs we produce. It frees us to try some edgy designs that we might not try if we were limited to evaluating CAD designs or had to skip prototyping due to time or budget constraints.”
Prior to having the Objet 3D printer, it would take Arch Day designers a minimum of three days to produce a prototype. So they might sit staring at their CAD stations a little longer, trying to select the best option – and then make their best guess and continue on. Now, instead of guessing, they can print out all the options and take a closer look. “These designs will ultimately become parts that are used in real people, so every last detail is absolutely critical,” said Weisel.
For example, recently Arch Day Design was working on a new design for an arthroscopic cannula system and had access to a surgeon-advisor only once per month. The client’s previous design of this type of guide tube was comprised of three parts, which lead to strength and reliability issues. Two days before meeting with the surgeon, the engineering team conceived a new type of one-piece cannula design that it thought was a major improvement. It would require surgeons to slightly change the way they performed a certain procedure, however. No one knew if the surgeon advisor would see the change as minor or not. “In just one day, we were able to design the new part and print out prototypes for the upcoming meeting,” recalled Weisel. “As it turns out, the surgeon thought the new design was a major improvement, and said that the procedure change required would be inconsequential. If we hadn’t had the ability to produce that prototype in a day, we never could have pitched that concept – it was too risky to take a chance without the surgeon’s buy-in.”
Arch Day Design frequently gets calls from customers who need parts printed quickly for internal design review meetings, testing, or focus groups. “Again, before we had the Alaris30 we basically needed three or four days’ notice to produce any prototype, and that meant sometimes we had to tell customers that we couldn’t make their deadline,” said Weisel. “Now, we can help them out even with just a few hours’ notice. There’s no substitute for putting a real prototype in a surgeon’s hand.” The in-house prototyping capabilities have lead to an increase in business.