You may recognize 3D printing and its related processes by its more technical term, additive manufacturing. This essentially means layer upon layer is added to a prototype rather than taken away with tools such as lathes. This is a boon to the $2 billion a year hearing aid industry that is touted to grow three percent by 2016. Years ago, this would have been impossible without the use of 3D printing and laser scanning, which all synchronize to automate the process, as well as reduce time of manufacture and create a customized product. Several more benefits can be had for the growing technology called 3D printing. It has been around for a decade now, especially in the use of making hearing aids, but also in electronics, jewelry and art.
The digitized processes inherent in 3D printing lead to fewer mistakes, reduced manufacture times and increased precision for each product. Back when traditional manufacturing processes were used, the hearing aid wearer may have been uncomfortable wearing the device because it didn’t fit snug in the ear. Maybe it wiggled, or maybe it was too tight. Whatever the case, hearing aids weren’t designed as an exact match to fit the individual as they are today with 3D printing. This has led to a big boost in comfort and precision with little to no margin for error. Combining computers and laser scanners offers a crucial combination, so that what used to be a time-consuming nine-step process now takes just a day thanks to the scientific application of 3D printing. Before, this was a highly involved method that took many technicians and artisans a week to complete. Now, there are just three steps involved with 3D printing: scan, model and print. This decreases time to manufacture, but it still takes some intense precision to get the process exactly right. This growing technology is certainly making the medical and hearing impaired communities stand up and take notice.
Lasers Make an Impression
Special lasers using up to 150,000 points of reference can create an impression of the ear, allowing 3D printing and laser scanning to work seamlessly together to automate the process. This also cuts down on the time of manufacture and develops a customized unit. Digital cameras aid in the process to send the images to the technician, who can apply the scan to various geometric shapes and templates and form a mold. Several combinations and geometric patterns are chosen to ensure the best fit. The result? A resin shell that is printed and fitted with all the proper acoustic vents, electronics and other circuitry that can amplify sound. Within 90 minutes, nearly 70 shells or 50 molds can be created by the printers. This offers such a great increase in speed and efficiency that accuracy is not compromised. Each device is thus personalized for a more precise prototype and manufactured product.