Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 13: the biological and medical 3-D printer and emergent custom manufacturing capabilities

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 13, 2013

This is my thirteenth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 363 and loosely following for Parts 1-12.) I have written recurringly in this series about 3-D printers as a route to small batch, local and customized production, beginning with:

Part 5: post-assembly line production and the emergence of a new personalized production capability 1 and its
Part 6 continuation.

I continue that here, with at least a brief discussion of a very new and disruptive application for this technology: the 3-D printer manufacturing of custom-fit individualized replacement body parts.

I write this posting at least in part from the impetus of a recent news story in which a then infant with a congenitally malformed airway was given a new lease on life through 3-D printing. A replacement airway that was shaped and sized to precisely fit this child as an infant was produced out of a scaffolding material that his own stem cells could be grown out in, to yield a custom fit replacement part that would be completely compatible with his own immune system – being grown out from his own cells. Then when his cells had grown out in it sufficiently to make a functional airway, this artificial airway was transplanted in.

With time, the artificial scaffolding that gave his new airway shape and form and that manufactured as a 3-D printer product was absorbed, as cells continued to grow in it and in a very normal developmental manner. And this child ended up with a biologically normal airway that could grow as he did and that has. This story hit the news with photos of a very happy and I add healthy looking toddler, sitting on the ground with a hand on his pet dog. And absent his surgery and the capability of producing this replacement part this child would probably not have lived to become a toddler at all, let alone live to that age healthy enough to have a normal, healthy life expectancy ahead of himself.

And this is where a whole series of medical challenges are addressed:

• There are never enough donated organs or other body parts available for transplantation to meet public need. Every day people on transplant recipient waiting lists die because they run out of time before the replacement part they need can become available.
• And even if a liver or kidney – or in this case a neonatal airway does become available, it might not be a sufficiently good match for blood type and histocompatibility factors to work for that patient,
• Or it might not be healthy enough and in good enough condition for transplantation use,
• Or it might be too far away to be transportable to the recipient patient before it degrades to a point where it cannot be used,
• Or as too often happens there may be others on the waiting list higher up on it from having been added to it first or because their health condition is considered graver.

If a patient’s own cells can be grown out in a correctly shaped and sized scaffolding that is manufactured out of the correct extracellular matrix and other materials to form a functioning replacement part, more people could be saved – and as these replacement parts would be grown using their own cells in these manufactured scaffoldings they would not need ongoing medication with all of its risks to prevent transplant rejection afterwards. And this brings me to facilities such as the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which as of this writing is one of the leaders in this field, and in the production of these 3-D printer product-based replacement parts.

This entire technology as applied to medicine and surgery is so new and in such an early stage of development that no one at this time at least, can even begin to predict where it will develop. But it is already clear that it will become increasingly possible to construct and transplant in perfect fit and perfect match replacement parts for more people than could possibly benefit from our current donated tissue and organ transplantation waiting list system. And more types of tissue and organ replacement parts will be available and for more types of corrective and regenerative repair too.

I am going to switch in my next series installment from medical applications of 3-D printer technology to consider its potential roles in emergency responses in the face of natural disasters, and in follow-up recovery efforts from those events. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 and Part 3 continuation pages.

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One Response

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  1. Timothy Platt said, on July 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    When I wrote this posting a month ago, the results of the surgery that I mentioned in it were very positive. Two days ago I learned that the toddler in this news story has now died. I routinely mask certain types of detail when writing of specific individuals in my blog and did so in this, switching the reported gender of this child, perhaps as reflex. The toddler who received the artificial trachea and windpipe in my posting has died. She had multiple medical problems and all of the effort taken to save her and all of her and her parents’ will and struggle for her to live were not enough.

    Her new airway, constructed on a machine and seeded with her own cells did not fail – that did not seem to cause or even contribute to her death. But that is probably not much consolation for her family. I wanted to add this note in memory of this brave child and in appreciation of her family. Even when I write in more abstract terms in my blog, I am still writing of real people and of real businesses and of their successes and losses. That counts; that matters and that is part of why I write this.

    Tim Platt


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