3-D Printing: Black Swan or Eye?

Healthcare Purchasing News

August 26, 2014

Copyright 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning All Rights Reserved Copyright 2014 KSR Publishing

Imagine a surgeon during a minimally invasive procedure not having the proper trocar cannula available for the flexible endoscope he's using. A frantic call to Supply Chain finds an atypical stockout of this product.

At best the supplier could guarantee same-day delivery. Not wicked fast pizza or sub sandwich transit but same-day nonetheless. Not good enough.

Not to worry. The surgeon already had fired up his nearby, sterile-covered trusty 3-D printer he had Supply Chain pick up at the local retail office supply store, called up the product specs, pressed the button and within minutes held up a near-perfect replica in his double-gloved hand.

Yes, this technology exists (anyone remember the mold-your-own-orthopedic-implant machine several decades ago?) and it's uncannily affordable. What was a $50,000 researcher exclusive tool 10 years ago now can be procured for less than $2,000 at retail mega-stores.

To wit, one speaker covering "New Supply Chain Agenda" trends at Eye for transport's "3PL Summit and Chief Supply Chain Officer Forum" in late June mentioned a $500 model available and another $200 model in the works.

Today, tabletop machines can "print" just about anything using a variety of available materials. In fact, one New York Times writer chronicled how he "cooked" a pasta dinner using a 3-D printer. The verdict? Marginally passable if you're not ravenously starving.

Obviously, we're a few sheets short of those famed "Star Trek" replicators on the "Starship Enterprise."

But this "trending" speaker said he believes 3-D printers will revive the local trades as part of a "new village" that won't eliminate the 3PL industry but "can eliminate 75% of designing and prototyping" by manufacturers, which, of course, affects distributors—and that nascent drone industry segment.

Think about the other possibilities that made-to-order capabilities would bring. Consolidated service centers, warehouses, storerooms and emergency stash closets would have to be scaled back as you wouldn't need to stock so much inventory. Would sterile processing need to be downsized, too? Reusing single-use devices would become a quaint ethical skirmish of yore. In fact, Supply Chain effectively could be decentralized into mobile 3-D printers with a holographic Supply Chain executive to walk you through the process, along with the projectable counter-detailing sales rep.

From implants, nutritionals, organs and organic tissue to medical devices, pharmaceuticals, prosthetics and surgical instruments, you may never run out of product again—genuine supply chain nirvana.

Not so fast.

Before you pull out the departmental procurement card, think about three key hurdles restraining this disruptive beast that no doubt has attorneys and venture capitalists salivating: Intellectual property, product integrity and product liability.

In order to "3-D print" or "remanufacture" something you have to be able to re-engineer it and record its component parts. And then you'll have to source tire raw materials needed and be able to track all of this sourcing and production, including component parts, which means establishing a 3-D printing network tethered to your enterprise resource planning or materials management information system, as well as your electronic health/medical record system and billing system.

If suppliers even agree to loosen their Intellectual Property rights, then you'll have to conduct scores of studies on the cost, quality and outcomes of 3-D-printed products vs. OEM products in a renaissance of the reusable vs. SUD debates. Of course, public and private payers will have to agree on reimbursement rates for these products.

People will have to be trained on how to use and maintain 3-D printers, while others will have to program them with all of the available data needed, which should be a boon for the information technology field and a boost for the use of supply data standards. Consider this the spark fusing IT and Supply Chain considered egregiously unfathomable today.

But the real hurdle is this: If and when something goes wrong with the patient on whom 3-D printed products are used, who pays? The surgeon? The hospital? The 3-D printer manufacturer? The product OEM? The insurance company? All of the above?

Bottom line: The patient does. You and me. Until this truly is "perfected," is the price worth paying for progress? When the black swan gives you a black eye we'll all be seeing red.

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