A futuristic idea is here to stay

Departments - Editor's Letter

February 8, 2018

Elizabeth Engler Modic

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, but I came across Murray Leinster’s “Things Pass By,” published in 1945 in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories (and republished in 1955), and it looks at the far-off world of 1992. Leinster envisioned a world in which machine tools were obsolete because Dirk Braddick, the main character, developed a method of casting metals with such accuracy that no machining was required. As the story continues, Braddick explains that he developed net-shape casting to eliminate a limitation of machine tools.

“A specialized machine tool will turn out one particular part, and it will produce that part cheaper than any other method can do. But if you try to change the product, the machine is useless. You get efficiency at the cost of flexibility,” Leinster wrote.

“But this constructor is both efficient and flexible. I feed magnetronic plastics – the stuff they make houses and ships of nowadays – into this moving arm. It makes drawings in the air following drawings it scans with photo-cells. But plastic comes out of the end of the drawing arm and hardens as it comes. This thing will start at one end of a ship or a house and build it complete to the other end, following drawings only.”

So, he missed how CAD/CAM systems would revolutionize subtractive manufacturing and how flexible modern machining centers would become. But, pretty good prognosticating for 1945.

Clearly, today’s machine tools aren’t obsolete – the market is predicted to grow to $88.2 billion by 2020 – and 73 years later 3D printing/additive manufacturing (3D/AM) isn’t building ships or houses start to finish, but it’s advancing. Current forecasts show 3D/AM technologies will impact 35% of all medical devices by 2027, with projections to reach $1.88 billion by 2022.

Released at the end of 2017, U.S. FDA’s 31-page guidance advises medical device manufacturers on the technical aspects of 3D/AM, recommending details manufacturers should include when submitting 3D/AM medical devices, including device design, testing products for function and durability, and quality system requirements. The goal is to help manufacturers bring innovative products to market more efficiently, “making sure our regulatory approach is properly tailored to the unique opportunities and challenges posed by this promising new technology.”

While patients are already benefitting from 3D/AM printed personalized devices, guidance authors note that 3D/AM may introduce variability into the manufacturing process that wouldn’t be present when using other techniques. Helping ensure the safety and effectiveness of these products, the FDA states that it will continue to work toward establishing a framework for applying existing device manufacturing laws and regulations in medical facilities and academic institutions now creating these patient-specific devices.

While Leinster’s sci-fi story may have been a little ahead of his time with the size and speed of 3D/AM technology, what he wrote in 1945 is happening daily in 2018. Has your facility invested in 3D/AM? If so, how is it being used to enhance production?

Elizabeth Engler Modic, Editor