Thanks to technology now available through ProMedica Innovations, employees who have promising ideas for new medical devices or products can see those ideas come to life before their very eyes.
A 3D printer makes it possible. The printer, which creates physical objects from a digital design file, became operational in early 2021. It holds the promise of changing the way new medical inventions make it to market.
Creating Real-World Solutions
ProMedica Innovations is a program designed to help transform employees’ ideas into real-world products that address unmet needs. These products are intended to improve patient care and bolster economic development in the communities ProMedica serves by leading to new companies and creating new jobs.
When an employee brings an idea to ProMedica Innovations, it goes through a careful vetting process. This process determines if the idea has the potential to become a commercially viable product. If it does, the Innovations team provides the support the employee needs to make their invention a reality, including developing a prototype.
That’s where the 3D printer comes in. By creating a prototype that others can see and experience firsthand, the Innovations team is better able to generate support, funding and more.
“There’s limited time to capture people’s interest and show them the potential of a new product,” explained Innovations Project Manager Dan Cassavar. He said, “If you can’t do that with a prototype, it’s really hard to generate excitement and have them believe the product could actually work. They have to see it.”
How 3D Printers Work
Printing a prototype begins with creating computer-aided design — or CAD — drawings. From these drawings come STL files, which are exported to the printer’s software. Essentially, the software gives the printer instructions for building a model of the drawing.
As printing begins, heated materials, such as polylactic acid or poly vinyl alcohol, are expressed from the printer and added to the product layer by layer from the bottom up. The material hardens as it cools, creating a replica of the design illustration.
“Really, the capabilities are pretty much endless,” said Innovations Project Manager Michael Saleh.
Printing time depends on several variables, and that’s a key advantage of this printer. You can create a “rough” rendering of a product in just a few hours, or by adding more printing time, a much more detailed and refined version.
“If you’re doing a prototype, time is of the essence,” said Saleh. “You want to make sure you get a cost-effective version quickly.”
That’s because early on, a simple visual representation of the device may be all that’s needed. There will be multiple iterations. As the team makes refinements and gets closer to the exact product they’re hoping to create, the model can become more precise.
ProMedica Innovations has relied on third party engineers to develop STL files and prototypes and make design revisions. This may take weeks to months and potentially add thousands of dollars to product development expenses. But by the end of 2021, the team hopes to create the files, and the CAD drawings they come from, in-house. This, coupled with the 3D printer, is expected to lead to dramatic time and cost savings when producing prototypes. That can be significant when it comes to securing funding for an invention.
Empowering Employees, Improving Lives
The ProMedica Innovations team works closely with the inventor all the way through product commercialization. But often “seeing their baby come to life,” is what inventors find most exciting. “They really enjoy the whole prototype process,” said Cassavar.
What’s certain is that the future of 3D printing in medicine may be even more exciting — for all of us. Researchers are now studying how to use cells and biomaterials to print human body parts, including organs for transplantation. It could become a gamechanger for people needing organ transplants, and it’s likely not that far off, according to Cassavar.
“Things are evolving and they’re evolving quickly,” he said.
For now, ProMedica Innovations is focused on using its 3D printer to empower employees and turn their ideas into tools that improve patient outcomes and change people’s lives.
“It speaks to instilling a culture of innovation, which is something that’s really important to us,” said Emily Kuhn, ProMedica Innovations marketing strategist. “From a cultural perspective, employees hear us say their ideas matter and we can help bring them to life. Now, in a matter of hours to days, they can see and hold in their hand something that was once just a thought.”
ProMedica Innovations accepts idea submissions from anyone (including members of the public) with great healthcare-related ideas. Have an idea to share? Submit it on ProMedica Innovation’s website.