3D Printing Puts Patients at the Heart of Design

3D printing lets pharmaceutical engineers imagine possibilities, react quickly to patient feedback, and bring to life new and next-generation drug delivery devices.

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Thomas Huemann, an engineer for research and development at AbbVie, and his team are always on the hunt for the most elegant solutions in the development of devices for patients. The “elegant solution” is a concept commonly taught in engineering, defined as an approach that addresses a complex problem in the simplest, most effective way.
Thomas Huemann, an engineer for research and development at AbbVie.

“The search for the elegant solution is what our department is all about; simple is always better. And we strive to find solutions that have the fewest number of parts with the greatest number of outcomes,” Huemann explains.  

With any new drug delivery device, Huemann’s team focuses their design work around the patient experience. “Our goal is for the patient’s interaction with the device to be second nature,” he says. “The first time you look at the device you know what it’s going to do; it’s easy, you’re not afraid of it. Our end user, the patient, is absolutely our number one concern.”

3D printing plays a critical role in finding the “elegant solution.” Huemann’s work begins by seeking input from patients and health care providers, and uses 3D technology to translate that input into next-generation drug delivery devices that make a difference in patients’ lives.
“Integrating 3D printing technology in our work was game changing,” Huemann explains. “It allows us to shorten timelines, incorporate patient feedback quickly and reduce development costs. The process was not always this easy.”


Life-saving advances

Less than 40 years ago, the idea of being able to print a three-dimensional object was unimaginable. Today, many promising advances using 3D printing are a ”life-saving” reality, as doctors at the University of Michigan proved. They used a 3D printer to produce tracheal splints to help newborns with birth defects that caused their airways to collapse, preventing air from getting to their lungs.

The doctors took CT scans of the babies’ windpipes and then produced 3D replicas. They then used computer-aided design software and the 3D printer to design and build splint-like devices that would fit precisely into the newborns’ windpipes. These simple devices allowed the babies to breathe normally on their own.

“The additive process of 3D printing – building objects layer by layer from the bottom up – gives designers the freedom to imagine possibilities, while speeding up the development process and lowering costs,” says Rich Werneth, president of Computer Aided Technology, LLC (CATI).

Making possibilities real

Inventor Charles Hull patented the first 3D printing technology in the mid-1980s and for many years, its application was limited to industrial settings to produce product prototypes. Over time, more industries saw its value. 3D printing allows engineers at AbbVie to imagine and pursue possibilities that traditional manufacturing technologies can’t produce.

“Sometimes our concepts have designs and geometries so challenging that they are impossible to achieve with traditional methods,” says Huemann. “For example, we can print a human hand out of rubberized material with a rigid skeletal system within or build sweeping arcs and variable curves to micrometer precision.”

When designing new or next-generation devices, patient testing is a critical, but costly and time-consuming piece of the process. 3D printing is helping to bridge technology with the understanding of the patient experience a lot more efficiently.

Testing begins with two design prototypes and as patients give feedback about potential improvements, the engineers can quickly tweak the design, print out new prototypes and ship them to the next location, where the next group of patients can provide feedback on enhanced designs. Two weeks later, multiple iterations have occurred and an “elegant solution” is reached.

“There’s a night-and-day difference between defining what good looks like on screen and actually holding the finished prototype,” says Huemann’s colleague and engineer, Kevin McLennan. “We could show concepts to patients, but the value of the feedback is a lot more valuable now that they can hold a prototype in their hands.”

“The whole point is that the patients’ voice is fully integrated in our work, which enables us to make a difference in their lives,” adds Huemann.