Medicine and health services have advanced greatly over the last century; the human anatomy is understood beyond Humorism and our DNA has been decoded. In just the last decade though 3D printing has further enabled the progress and availability of health services. Indeed, medical solutions are being prototyped with 3D printing at a faster pace than ever before with any other technology. Some medical devices are printed beyond prototyping however, into the final product stages, like artificial hips; hearing aids are another example, as a large majority of ITE (in-the-ear) hearing aids are now 3D printed.
Widex is a Danish company that’s been making hearing aids since the 50s, back when they were powered by battery packs strapped to the chest. Electronics have shrunk drastically since then and batteries pack more power in much smaller sizes too, so the whole device can easily hide in the ear now. But every ear is different, so every hearing aid must be custom made. Here’s a How It’s Made on hearing aids from 2006.
So a mold is taken of the ear, a “positive” imprint mold is made off of that, and then the imprint is used to mold the actual hearing aid, with much cutting, filing, and sanding required afterward. With CAMISHA (Computer Aided Manufacturing for Individual Shells for Hearing Aids), in 2013, hearing aid creation starts with the same ear mold, but then that goes into a 3D scanner and the digital file is used to print the shell, cutting out half of the steps and most of the time, as those steps were slow, manual labor. In 2006, manually casting a single hearing aid took two days; now dozens can be printed by one machine in a few hours at substantially lower costs.
That’s a pretty big jump, and it’s almost entirely thanks to 3D scanning and printing. Hearing is a valuable sense; without it, music is gone, alarms can be missed, and just plain ol’ listening becomes a task. Listening is important, and though the elderly aren’t the only ones that suffer from hearing loss, it’s mostly them, and they’re often good at listening, so it’s important that they be able to hear. Eventually the electronics will be printed into the shell as well, and by then we’ll see the beginnings of printed eyes.