Health care reform has focused the public’s attention on the ever-rising costs of medical care. Federal regulatory agencies, medical device manufacturers, insurance companies and health care providers are all scrambling to find ways to cut costs without impacting patient outcomes and care standards.

At the same time, they must worry about rising litigations and health care consumerism. The Affordable Care Act has changed the way patients get medical attention and how the industry gets paid for services. As additive manufacturing becomes more prevalent in all areas of life, its use as a medical asset is clear.

In fact, the benefit of 3D scanners in the medical industry is becoming more obvious with each new discovery.

  • Medical schools are utilizing this technology to develop realistic training tools.
  • Surgeons are able to handcraft tools specific to complex procedures.
  • Prosthesis manufacturers are fitting replacement limbs faster and for less money.

It all adds up to savings. Reducing health care costs begins at the manufacturing level, though. Medical device manufacturers can use 3D scanners, CAD software and additive manufacturing to lower their costs in a way that creates a ripple effect throughout the industry.

How 3D Scanners Work

A 3D scanner analyzes an object and collects data that defines its shape. The exact process depends on the scanner type. Contact 3D scanners physically probe the specimen as it sits on a precision flat surface. This provides a realistic look at the shape, texture and polish of the piece for a precision reproduction.

Non-contact scanners use radiation or light to determine the shape of the piece. There are two main formats for non-contact scanners; both rely on lasers to obtain measurements.

Time-of-flight – Delivers a pulse of light and then measures how long it takes to see it reflected off the surface of the sample, essentially recording the round-trip flight time of the light pulse.

Triangulation – Uses a laser light probe and a camera. The laser shines on the surface of the object and the camera looks for the dot. The scanner, camera and laser dot create a triangle that allows the technology to measure the distance.

Manufacturing can benefit from both types of scanners, but non-contact is the more common.

How 3D Scanner Technology is Improving Manufacturing as a Whole

Any manufacturing benefits from the use of 3D technology including scanners. Scanners provide:

  • Non-contact inspection models
  • First article inspection
  • Design quality inspection
  • Testing for batch conformity
  • Alignment inspection models

They are an integral tool for part design when creating metal, tooled or modeled pieces.

3D Scanners in the Medical Field

Medical technology is changing rapidly and 3D technology is a major contributor to its expansion. Using scanners is improving the way doctors treat wounds, create procedures and plan surgeries. It allows them to diagnose diseases with pinpoint accuracy.

  • Scanners are used to locate hard to see infections, like deep in the ear canal.
  • They provide mobile imaging when a patient can’t be moved.
  • Scanners help doctors diagnose retinopathy in diabetic patients before it causes blindness.
  • Scanners and CAD technology capture the 3D shapes necessary for orthotics and corrective dentistry.

It is medical manufacturers that see the real cost benefits of using 3D technology, however.

3D Imaging and Medical Manufacturing

Medical device manufacturers are facing global economic collapse due to the growing pressure to cut costs and a staggering excise tax. Many are considering employee layoffs and looking to offshore their design process to save money. Quality control has always been an issue in this industry, but as the technology becomes more complex the need for precision and advanced technology grows, adding to the financial burden manufacturers face.

One solution is to shift the focus to 3D processing in order to improve the design strategies, enhance quality control and drive down overall production costs. Using scanners allows designers to make prototypes and check them for effectiveness. After testing a prototype, the scanner:

  • Compares the model to the original design scheme
  • Checks the part for wear and flaws
  • Creates a comparative evaluation of a new design against an older one
  • Assesses how environmental stressors affect the design

These variables are difficult to test in real life scenarios without putting patients at risk. By troubleshooting designs, medical manufacturers cut back on the cost of ligation. A prototype is tested, scanned and then improved on until it is proven safe for use.

Once a final design is available, manufacturers use 3D scanners to collect the precise data necessary for patent applications and original equipment manufacturer, OEM, reports provided to regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. This improves the processing time for approvals.

Should there be a problem later on with a specific device or tool, the scanner can help investigate the failure and look for ways to improve the design to prevent further issues. A real world example of this would be the recent CRE outbreaks in Los Angeles and Seattle. The contaminated tool was a specially designed duoendoscope. Investigators determined there were areas on the device that could not be adequately cleaned even when the facility followed the manufacturer’s instructions.

Scanners would show the areas on the device that are susceptible to microbial contamination. A manufacturer could try a variety of cleaning processes and rescan the tool until they were able to ensure proper sterilization. They could also redesign the scope to eliminate problem areas.

Through preventative testing and quality inspection using 3D scanners, medical manufacturers substantially reduce inspection times, create dimensional assessments and improve their operational efficiencies. That forward thinking is what drives the medical industry toward new developments that save lives.

Medical science is just beginning to understand the role additive manufacturing and 3D designing holds for the industry. Already, patients are benefiting from the technology with organ replacements and precision prosthetics. 3D Scanners add another layer of quality control to the medical manufacturing process to lower costs and improve patient care.