A lab-on-chip, an intervertebral disc, or an ultra-thin grid in an X-ray machine. All examples of applications with 3D printing in the medical world. Promising production technologies in a world where new products have to meet strict quality requirements. Three companies from the Brainport region are entering the medical market with this kind of "Additive Manufacturing".
On an empty chip, there are all sorts of mini channels. These channels are connected to a point where liquids come together. A laser prints functionalities over the test lanes on the chip, as it were. "This way, you make sure you control the flow of the liquids. That is the basis of what we call a lab-on-a-chip". You can, for example, run blood through the chip, which in turn reacts to, for example, a diabetes test.
"This lab-on-a-chip technology can save an enormous amount of time in the hospital," says Sy-A-Chin. Until now, all blood values have to be tested in a lab. "This can sometimes take up to three days. Sy-A-Chin, therefore, thinks that the first applications of the chip may be in hospital laboratories. But his ideal image is that people will soon also be able to test their blood at home.
Holst Centre worked on this technology for ten years. Keiron is developing a machine that can produce microfluidic chips. With subsidies from, among others, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and a subsidy applied for together with Holst Centre at Metropool Regio Eindhoven (MRE), the start-up wants to build the first machine. To show that it works, says Sy-A-Chin. "We have set out a timeline in which we want to bring our machines for mass production to the market in 2025.”
"We saw the potential of it. The first 3D printer turned out to be the fundament of today's success". Among other things, the company prints first prototypes for customers, as well as an entire production line for orthopedic implants and instruments. Such as intervertebral discs for the spine, hip implants, and applications for the knee. Tens of thousands of implants were 3D printed for customers in Europe and America. "Our products fully comply with the quality requirements applicable in Europe and America.”
The range for 3D printing is enormous, says Ten Kate. "There are dozens of different techniques and hundreds of materials to print with. What we do has the collective name of 'powder bed fusion'. A product is created by literally fusing powder. "You merge a layer that solidifies. After that, a new layer of powder is formed, which melts, solidifies and so you build up the product layer by layer.”
According to Ten Kate, the biggest advantage of 3D printing is that it also works with very complex shapes. "This allows an implant to grow very well in your body. A printed intervertebral disc has the same mechanical properties as the bone, due to its open structure”, Ten Kate explains.
Comparable to the current implants are FMI’s titanium prints. "With 3D printing, the finish is very important. It is not the most precise production technique." To get it smoothly into a precise size, it still has to be twisted or milled, for example, and cleaning the 3D printed parts is a crucial step, says Ten Kate. "We also have those techniques in-house.”
The breakthrough came in 2014 and the company has been producing 3D printed anti-scatter grids on a large scale ever since. Starting in 2018, more and more printers will be added. "Our site in Best now has dozens of those machines. They run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
Because much of what Dunlee does is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), Grage can say little about the projects the company is currently working on. "The use of 3D printing as a viable source for components is increasing exponentially, but there is still a long way to go.” Grage notes that there is a large market for 3D printed pure tungsten and that more and more companies are "opening up to explore the possibilities with us".
In spite of this confidentiality obligation, there is plenty of consultation with companies from the Brainport region. "3D printing is not only about the technology, but also about the steps around the print job. This includes internally developed finishing capacity and the purchase of high-quality materials. There are plenty of companies in this region with whom we can exchange ideas. And local companies come to us as well. They want to find out what they can do with tungsten."