It's Not About Owning A 3D Printer, Its About Owning The Right 3D Printer


Grace Medical is a global leader in the design/manufacture of medical devices for the treatment of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) disorders. One of their main priorities is to stay on the edge of innovation in order to maintain that leadership position. Cody Bateman, Product Development Engineer at Grace Medical, found out that buying the most expensive system on the market doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the best system on the market… for your needs.

Not long ago, Matthew Dedmon, MD, PhD. approached Grace Medical with an idea for an endoscopic skills trainer for a new technique in surgery of the middle ear. The main issue with this new technique is that it uses an endoscope that only has one camera, which means there is no real depth perception, making it difficult for new or less experienced surgeons to develop those motor skills for the surgery. According to Cody Bateman, a Product Development Engineer at Grace Medical, the surgery involves “looking at a TV screen where you can see your instruments touching the different anatomy in the ear, but it’s just not intuitive - you have to learn it.It’s just really a waste of money to buy a temporal bone or cadaver specimen and start tearing it apart 100 times until you’ve got the hang of it.”

That’s where Dr. Dedmon’s skills trainer came in. The system he’d roughly developed was a physical trainer that simulates the intricate details of the middle ear. The trainer has several different cartridges meant to develop varying surgical techniques through completion of different obstacles. Using this system in a research study, Dr. Dedmon determined that the subjects’ skills using an endoscope for the middle ear surgery increased dramatically after using the system only six times.

Buoyed by the results of his study, Dr. Dedmon decided to contact Grace Medical about manufacturing the product. Cody was brought into the project at this point with the directive to take Dr. Dedmon’s prototype and develop the trainer to a higher production quality. Grace Medical had been contemplating 3D printers for a while and had even been using an inexpensive desktop model for certain applications. With this project, because the components were so complex and in many cases asymmetrical, they decided it was time to make the leap to a more serious 3D printer.

Cody began researching 3D printers and started at the top. However, he quickly realized that, based on his budget, a $500,000 printer just wasn’t going to work. So, he went to the other end of the spectrum looking at a desktop, laser sintering printer. While it would have done the job, the parts coming out of the printer were rough. This was a problem according to Cody. “A lot of the modules that Dr. Dedmon created involved a little bead or a small nut sliding on the material. And [coming out of the desktop printer], this stuff felt like sandpaper. Even if we wanted to get this smooth enough for use, well, that went out the window.”

That’s when Cody reached out to Joe Holmberg at Duncan-Parnell, Inc. Initially, Cody thought the 3DSystems ColorJet printing (CJP) technology would be ideal, as several of the modules needed contrast, which could be provided by the color materials available with the CJP. After listening to Cody’s requirements, in particular the need for a really smooth surface, Joe pointed him instead towards the Multi-Jet printing (MJP) and the ProJet 2500 Plus. Skeptical, Cody requested samples from both printers and was surprised at the quality and smoothness of the prototypes printed from the MJP. Another major factor in the purchase was the hands-free (batch) post-processing provided by the MJP. Some of the original printers that Cody considered were too time-consuming in terms of post-processing.

According to Cody, “With the MJP’s direct competitor, you had to spray down the prototype with water until all the support materials fall off, and we didn’t want to have to pay one of our manufacturing guys to do that all day. As opposed to the 3DSystems printer, where you just put all of your parts in a basket, [place it in the EasyClean station], and it’s basically done! That was the main pull.”

It was after Cody determined that they could create the contrast they needed by creating a grid pattern on some of the features that he decided the MJP was the best solution for Grace Medical. While the cost of materials was slightly higher with the MJP versus the CJP, the materials options – rigid, clear, and elastomeric – were a big draw. Additionally, the easy material changeover offered by the ProJet 2500 Plus allows Grace Medical to quickly shift gears to different projects.

The ProJet 2500 Plus has allowed the team at Grace Medical to expand into short run production of functional parts like the ENT skills trainer and iterate designs for other products. In fact, they’ve used it for several projects that they didn’t foresee, including designing and printing test articles to allow them to evaluate a non-scarring, soft scar/wound treatment alginate. Having the printer in-house has helped them shrink their time-to-part by two-thirds over the previous outsourcing approach, allowing them to iterate faster and across more product lines.

“We’ve used it for several projects that we didn’t anticipate, but just as far as getting a prototype in the hands of a surgeon, to use as a tool for him to kind of feel? Surgeons, if you give them something that is real, they can tell you a whole lot more about it than if you just give them a drawing. So, for that kind of stuff, it’s increased our productivity by at least 60%. I mean, it’s so much easier for us to design and print something in a day that a surgeon wants, instead of going back and forth with them for months on a design and then getting it machined or getting it injection molded, and months later, we come back to them, and it’s still not what they want.It’s just an extremely long cycle.”

At Duncan-Parnell, we take the consultation process seriously with you and your needs in mind – what you need, how you’ll use it, and how the purchase fits in your budget. Cody and the team at Grace Medical were very pleased with the outcome of the purchase process with Joe Holmberg and Duncan-Parnell. Cody felt that “Joe is extremely knowledgeable, and I really like that he is very knowledgeable about all the 3D printers. When I told him what I needed, he knew which one would best fit.” At the end of the day, Grace Medical wound up with a totally different 3D printing technology than they’d initially considered, and at a significant savings. It really is about buying what you need, and for Grace Medical, owning the best 3D printer didn’t mean owning the most expensive 3D printer.

Prototypes printed at Grace Medical with the ProJet 2500 Plus

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