A digital transformation has taken place in manufacturing, which is already impacting the healthcare industry. Manufacturers, their customers, and ultimately, patients are all benefiting from recent technology developments around digitalization. The use of machine learning is helping manufacturers to analyze vast amounts of data to identify patterns and make decisions that were previously too resource-intensive. Advanced data storage solutions and improved data transmission capabilities alongside technologies such as CAD/CAM and 3D printing are changing the relationship between the customer and the manufacturer by enabling manufacturing-on-demand. The results of this transformation are that manufacturers can better meet the needs of the market by providing customers and patients with greater possibilities for customization and individualization.
Many manufacturers have already invested in platforms that enable smart data analysis combining IoT (Internet-of-Things) sensors on their equipment at production facilities with cloud and machine learning technologies. Implementing these types of solutions optimizes manufacturing processes and helps to improve quality, fault prediction and fault analysis. Machine learning also plays an increasing role in testing products for defects. For example, in the field of imaging, in order to account for pixel errors inherent to X-ray flat panel detectors, a large amount of test shots were needed to find these faults. Machine learning has the potential to better predict these errors thereby reducing the amount of test shots needed and ultimately lowering the cost of testing.
"The digital transformation is making greater individual customization possible by better connecting the manufacturer with the customer"
The ability to transmit and analyze internal data is only the first part of the story. The digital transformation is also making greater individual customization possible by better connecting the manufacturer with the customer. Technological advances enable manufacturers to meet the demand for greater differentiation through mass customization, which is a method of differentiating the product for a particular customer as late as possible in the process. Healthcare has many potential applications for mass customization in the immediate term.
Customization goes beyond just color choice and optional equipment or accessories. For example, a customer could order a dental instrument made precisely to their specifications. It would even be possible for a customer to send a model of their hand and design the grip of an instrument based on the data.
The expansion of mass customization is an important trend for the immediate future and companies need to meet their clients’ expectations. In dentistry, for example, a practice can order custom-made clear aligners, implants, abutments, and surgical guides by taking a digital image of the patient’s mouth, sometimes combined with a 3D X-ray. The data can then be uploaded via a software platform and sent directly to the manufacturer to make the appliance or device specific to that patient’s anatomy. This level of customization truly benefits patients not only in the final aesthetic results but also via the improved process for treatments. As efficiency increases and costs decrease, this can have a very beneficial effect on the accessibility of oral healthcare, which in turn has a positive impact on general health.
Among the most exciting technology developments helping to enable mass customization is CAD/CAM manufacturing and the promising rise of additive manufacturing, known as 3D printing. Medical device and dental companies are aware of the impact the technology is having on healthcare as well as its future potential and have already begun to aggressively invest in equipment. The business case for investing in this technology is likely to become more evident in 2019 as the speed of printing dramatically improves, the variety of materials available increases, and artificial intelligence-driven generative design lowers the bar for individualization. 3D printing is also a less wasteful and more efficient approach to production and is a game-changer in terms of minimum product runs. It also gives companies the ability to have a leaner inventory reducing the need for warehousing space.
Looking beyond dentistry, 3D printed prosthetics are already available at a significant cost-savings relative to traditional prosthetics without any loss in functionality. Clinicians can also use 3D printing to create models to prepare for complicated procedures, thus reducing the risk to patients. As the technology advances further the implications for life-saving emergency procedures are astounding. Organs may be able to be printed for patients in need of transplants or new skin for burn victims. The pharmaceutical side of healthcare also sees potential for manufacturing drugs via additive manufacturing and there is already one drug with FDA approval, manufactured with a 3D printer.
The digital transformation that’s occurring makes it an exciting moment to be in manufacturing. Companies need to adapt in order to avoid being left behind. The healthcare industry is already benefiting from the improved ability to customize products whether as a clinician ordering equipment or as a patient experiencing reduced treatment times and more natural fitting appliances. As technology continues to advance, the impact on healthcare will become profound, as potentially life-changing treatments will be literally printable with the right equipment.