3D Printing: Powering Innovation, Health

3D printing's come a long way.

The technology has definitely gone mainstream, now that hobbyists can buy inexpensive devices online and companies are experimenting with everything from food to fashion to cars and housing. But it’s within healthcare that it has the biggest life-changing potential.


Abbott scientists and engineers use 3D printing to develop prototype tools that enhance product development for devices used to treat vascular disease. They evaluate the early-stage design of tools that improve people’s vision. And they prototype parts used in next-generation medical diagnostics.

In fact, these 3D-printed items could make it faster, more innovative, less expensive and more efficient to develop new medical devices and products—all with the ultimate goal of helping people live longer, healthier lives. At a time when personalized and customizable medicine is taking center stage, 3D printing technology today points to increasingly sophisticated uses tomorrow.

3D printing—or “additive manufacturing,” as it’s sometimes called—converts a digital CAD (computer aided design) file into a three-dimensional structure by laying down layer after layer of thin material such as resin or plastic, which is often cured with ultraviolet light.


3D printer housed in Abbott’s diagnostics business in Santa Clara, California.

Moving faster by leveraging learnings across Abbott

Earlier this year, Abbott’s Scientific Governing Board—made up of senior scientific leaders from across the company’s different focus areas—launched a 3D Task Force headed by John Capek, executive vice president, Ventures, and Jamey Jacobs, divisional vice president of global product development for Abbott’s vascular business.

The 3D Task Force's mission? "To identify and leverage best practices and learnings from around Abbott, helping everyone to move faster and smarter," and, said Jacobs, "to discover where can we find the cutting edge of 3D capabilities outside Abbott that could provide technically advanced solutions."

With just a CAD file, a physical piece takes shape "directly from the engineer's design file without requiring a machinist to translate the drawings into a prototype using traditional machine shop tools—something that would take days or weeks," Jacobs added. "You can get complex, quick working models and fail or succeed fast. It also allows new solutions because you can 3D-print something that couldn’t possibly be machined. It can truly revolutionize our design capabilities."

Working across Abbott’s different medical device businesses—including those focused on vascular, vision care, diabetes and diagnostics—is paying off, said Senior Volwiler Research Fellow Syed Hossainy, who leads the 3D printing initiative within Abbott's vascular division. Brainstorms with colleagues from the vision and diabetes care businesses about the challenges in their fields led to 3D-printing breakthrough ideas.

In addition to working with each other, Capek challenged the businesses to partner with emerging external resources—start-up firms and forward-thinking organizations—that are pushing innovation in the 3D space, especially when it comes to patient-specific advances. In fact, Abbott's vascular R&D team recently worked with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Dr. Anthony Atala, one of the world's leading regenerative medicine researchers, to prototype a 3D-printed bioabsorbable heart support device that's customized for a patient's own anatomy and function. "In the future," said Hossainy, "a device like this has real potential to benefit people with advanced congestive heart failure."


3D printer at Abbott’s diagnostics business in Santa Clara, California.

Bringing 3D-printed devices to life, for life

Among the ways this technology’s taking shape at Abbott:

  • The R&D team from Abbott's vascular business uses 3D printing to make prototype devices, as well as simulated clinical environments in which to test them.

    For its Supera Peripheral Stent System, the team's developing new ergonomically shaped handles that allow surgeons to deliver this self-expanding endovascular stent inside the arteries of a patient's legs with enhanced precision. And they're using 3D-printing technology to perfect this handle. "We had to come up with a catheter with very different functionality," said Product Development Director Bjorn G. Svensson. Overnight or in a few hours, we would print the parts—gears and levers and triggers and put it together."

    Interventionalists, or doctors who specialize in minimally invasive vascular procedures, are the end users of the final products resulting from these prototypes. "That's why, said Svensson, "the ergonomics of the handle become very important. We can try three, four or five shapes of the handle trigger. For instance, should it have a dip, or dimple in-between? If you wear gloves, is it different? It's revolutionary the way we can develop new products. Without 3D printing, next-generation Supera would take us up to 10 months or longer for just the handle's development. Our ability to build a new prototype version every day is completely enabled by 3D printing."

    The 10-inch long handle, said Jacobs, has "the intricacies of a Swiss watch that literally uses some of the same planetary gear technology. These delicate and precise inner workings are enabled by 3D printing. We can refine designs, and the speed is accelerated by a factor of 10." The vascular team will continue testing and refining Supera handle prototypes—and after obtaining regulatory approval, plans to make the final devices commercially available globally by mid-2016.

    To test both coronary and endovascular devices, the team creates intricate artificial arteries from fairly fragile material. "We take patient vascular anatomy and convert it to a file our 3D printer can actually fabricate, to better understand the capabilities of our products in a simulated environment," said Julia Fox, who recently moved from R&D within the vascular business to its Global Market Development team. "At the end of product development, we want to know it’s actually going to work as we expect in a patient."

  • Within Abbott's vision care business, R&D has been using 3D printing in prototype development for subassemblies and products for the past few years. These samples had been printed offsite before the team acquired its own machine. The technology’s especially useful in testing the high-tech, syringe-type product that delivers intraocular lenses into someone's eye during cataract surgery. The device is comprised of between five and 10 small plastic parts, and rather than have its manufacturer keep changing the steel molds, "the 3D helps us upfront. We can use the device, see its functionality, and make (adjustments)," said Kevin Springer, an R&D program engineer. "People want to see and hold something, and you have a representative piece in your hand."

    Added Scott Evans, an R&D director within the vision care business: "If we can take weeks off the development cycle by perfecting the design before starting production tooling, that’s very important to us. Hopefully, those prototypes will be closer to specification, and assist in getting products to the market faster."


3D-printed prototype of a patented hematology analyzer, which runs automated tests on blood samples. This device allowed engineers from Abbott’s diagnostics business to model parts of the assembly and test the concept before production.
  • On the diagnostics side, 3D printers are used to create prototype parts for this business's next-generation systems. "The biggest thing is that it improves the speed of development to provide products to our customers," said Powell Thoppil, a product transition team manager. Diagnostics’ products are used by hospitals, blood banks and laboratories. So "by getting these new products out to them faster," said Thoppil, "we’re able to help patients live better lives."

For important safety information about Supera, please see: