Sounds too weird to be true, doesn’t it? 3D printers emitting customized hearing aids? Why yes! This type of printing is making waves in the hearing aid industry, also known as additive manufacturing. This entails adding to a product layer by layer rather than cutting away at it with tools like lathes. It’s used in all sorts of industries but its use in the hearing aid sector gets the most attention because of its precision. Helping people hear better is the aim of this technology, which is important to the more than 35 million people in this country who suffer from hearing impairments. 3D printing develops hearing aids from scratch that provide a perfectly customizable fit. This technology isn’t really new, as it’s been used in the manufacture of hearing aids for quite some time. But, the process is attracting more attention as the technology gets better and better. The result is a big need to offer more efficient, better working hearing aids that use the very latest in technology.
A 3D scanner is a big component of the digitized process that helps to make an impression of the ear via special lasers that use up to 150,000 points of reference. With the hearing aid industry at $2 billion a year and growing, this has been propelled through the use of 3D printing and laser scanning, which all work together to automate the process, cut down on the time of manufacture and develop a customized unit. Digital cameras aid in the process to send the images to the technician, who can apply the scan to various geometric shapes and templates and form a mold. Several combinations and geometric patterns are chosen to ensure the best fit. The result? A resin shell that is printed and fitted with all the proper acoustic vents, electronics and other circuitry that can amplify sound. Within 90 minutes, nearly 70 shells or 50 molds can be created by the printers. This offers such a great increase in speed and efficiency that accuracy is not compromised. Each device is thus personalized for a more precise prototype and manufactured product.
The exponential use of 3D printing and laser scanning is a big part of keeping up in all that. These automated machines reduce time and labor while boosting efficiency but they are not cheap. That being said, reduced manufacturing costs have yet to be seen. 3D printing is being touted for its streamlined efficiency on the factory floor, with an increase in production thanks to the fact that one hearing aid only takes a single day to create. Hearing aids made in this revolutionary manner, combining 3D printing and laser scanning, result in a customized fit for the wearer. Before, with traditional manufacturing processes, a person could experience an OK fit overall but it may have wiggles around in the ear a bit or just not felt quite right. Now, there is no room for error and what results is a perfect match. Increasing comfort with automated processes is at the heart of 3D printing – which is thought to only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the benefits to the industry. Fewer mistakes are made in manufacture, another benefit to this technology.