As a company that has been inventing and manufacturing 3D printers and materials for 15 years, our company has had a front-row seat to amazing changes in the way things are made. We are also confident that more progress is on the horizon, especially when it comes to medical applications.
While the benefits to consumers, businesses and the economy as a result of 3D printing can be profound—so, too, is the painful disruption.
Unfortunately, a great deal of that disruption is happening to manufacturers themselves. Increasingly, they find themselves cut out of the equation as 3D printers enable the process of making things to move closer to the end user and, in many cases, take manufacturing of certain objects out of actual manufacturing facilities altogether.
Take the dental industry. Dentists and orthodontists are buying 3D printers to make items that were once made nearly exclusively by dental laboratories and manufacturers. Today, these doctors can 3D print a custom device—say, a bite splint or restoration—without any involvement of a lab or manufacturer.
While some of those companies are figuring out ways to adopt to these changes, with their own new approaches to 3D printing services, it’s still a painful period for many. They must contend with lower demand for their services or reinvent their business models.
At the same time, this shift to more local manufacturing also raises serious safety issues. For example, should an orthodontic office with a 3D printer now face the same kind of regulatory review as a laboratory or manufacturer to protect part quality and patients? Do all 3D printers really offer the same level of quality as a manufacturer?
These are serious questions whose answers will, and probably already are, directly effecting patient safety. At EnvisionTEC, for example, we routinely see 3D printers being advertised to clinicians that cannot deliver the accuracy they promise and that is required for some applications. Sometimes, they actively promote printing devices in materials that are not approved for long-term use in the mouth.
In May 2016, the FDA issued “Technical Considerations for Additive Manufactured Devices” to solicit comment on these types of issues. In August, AdvaMed, the association for medical device manufacturers, wrote “that a point-of-care establishment that installs 3D printers and uses those 3D printers to routinely manufacture devices … [is] subject to relevant FDA requirements, including premarket review if applicable, and post-market controls such as establishing and maintaining quality systems and adverse event reporting.”
Johnson & Johnson added “the installation of 3D printers and the routine manufacturing of devices using additive manufacturing techniques in hospitals, physician offices, finishing laboratories and similar establishments exceed the limits” of an exemption that had been set for “licensed practitioners, including physicians, dentists and optometrists.”
While we recognize medical device manufacturers want to protect patients, and also themselves from the threat of manufacturing directly at the point of clinical service, EnvisionTEC does not want to see progress staunched. We believe the recommendation by AdvaMed places too high a burden on clinicians and compromises the time and cost progress that 3D printers offer clinicians and patients.
That said, we do recognize that the market for 3D printers for clinicians has become a bit like the Wild West. As a result, we at EnvisionTEC welcome direct regulation of 3D printers and materials to protect both consumers and clinicians, who may be convinced to buy products that simply cannot meet clinical needs that laboratories and manufacturers have strived so diligently to meet.