3D printing is finding its way into industrial manufacturing. In conjunction with the increasing digitalization of design and manufacturing processes, often known as Industry 4.0, 3D printing technology will also play a key role in medtech going forward. The idea behind the new technology transfer center in Bettlach, Canton Solothurn, is to help bring scientific know-how to industry and at the same time accelerate research.
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is gaining ground in both industry and science. Its great advantage is that it can be used to create complex forms on the basis of a digital model by building them up layer by layer, and also enables individual items to be produced cost-efficiently on a one-off basis. This makes 3D printing extremely interesting for the medical technology industry. Given that every body is unique, what better than printing an implant, for example, tailored specifically to the individual patient?
But additive manufacturing is a complex business, especially in medtech. A lot of specialist knowledge is required in areas such as the materials used, the manufacturing process, post-processing printed parts, the software used in designing and manufacturing the implant, the human body, and the surgery involved. Added to this are legal matters, to say nothing of the high costs of the equipment – which is particularly true when it comes to medical devices, whose manufacture has to be validated and follow a certified process. For many Swiss medtech SMEs the obstacles are currently too formidable to venture into this new world. On the other hand if they fail to do so, they risk losing touch with the international competition.
From lab to industry
This is about to change: In Bettlach in Canton Solothurn a new center is being set up specializing in the transfer of new manufacturing technologies to applications in the medtech industry. The Swiss m4m Center is not a research facility as such, but is designed to promote the transfer of know-how and technology. “Successfully transferring new technologies to industry requires both the experience of industry, and new materials and insights from research. The challenge lies in bringing these two things together. The new center is designed to do precisely this for an industry, medtech, that is very important for Switzerland,” explains Pierangelo Gröning, a member of the management of Empa Materials Science and Technology and the initiator of the Swiss m4m Center.
The new center will house equipment for manufacturing implants and other medical devices with the same processes used in industrial production. The aim is to bridge the gap between research and industry. Companies and research institutions will be able to book and use the center’s infrastructures and services for themselves. Set up as a public-private partnership, the center will be funded and run by both the public sector and by private enterprise. Numerous partners from research institutions, hospitals, and the private sector are involved. The latter include the Bettlach-based medtech company 41medical, on whose premises the center is located. The center went into operation at the end of 2019.The cantons of Bern and Solothurn are also involved in the project.
More centers planned
The Swiss m4m Center will not be the only one in the country: To bridge the gap in technological development between research and industry and maintain Switzerland’s position as a modern, high-quality center of production in the long term, the alliance for Advanced Manufacturing Technology Transfer Centers (AM-TTCs for short) has been established. Part of the Swiss federal government’s Digitalization action plan, its goal is to operate a network and an alliance of technology transfer centers providing open access to their respective infrastructures. So far 11 further centers are envisaged and being planned in addition to the Swiss m4m Center. They cover areas ranging from the manufacture of battery cells to the use of digital manufacturing technologies and robots in construction.
Into the future with 3D printing
3D printing has enormous benefits for many industries, and poses exciting challenges for researchers. Besides the Swiss m4m Center, and the Coating Competence Center opened back in 2016 on the Empa Campus in Dübendorf, which houses various 3D printing installations, a competence center for the additive manufacture of metallic alloys is currently being set up in Thun.
Source: Karin Weinmann, Empa Materials Science and Technology