Spectroplast has developed a new technique to fabricate biocompatible silicone products with additive manufacturing. The ETH spin-off plans to create customized medical products like hearing aids, breast prosthesis for breast cancer patients and someday, even synthesize heart valves. Manuel Schaffner and Petar Stefanov are the founders of Spectroplast. Schaffner hopes to use the technology to offer medical implants in the future, and not in standard sizes, as is the case with conventional off-the-shelf products, but to be able to tailor according to the patient requirements.
Additive manufacturing has typically been used to create objects of hard materials like metal, plastic, and ceramic. Soft elastic silicone is used in injection molding, wherein different components of the composite material are fused at extremely high temperatures of around 300 degrees. However, 3D print has two significant advantages over injection molding process. Firstly, its high-precision method can produce extremely intricate shapes and secondly, that it makes the process easier as well as cheaper, as it does not need molds. This can be useful for mass manufacturing of customized components. However, the company is working on developing the technology to market implants or artificial heart valves fabricate by 3D printing, because of the tedious regulatory and approval processes associated with the medical devices. Thus, the company is currently focusing on what they call ‘life-improving’ instead of ‘life-saving’ products.
Silicone is suitable for creating products like breast prosthesis or hearing aids. Schaffner says that women who have had one or both their breasts removed due to cancer, typically only have the option of standardized breast prosthesis, so some patients also ask for the natural one to be removed and replaced with a synthetic one for both of them to be symmetrical. In such cases, the new technology can be useful. The world’s sole high-precision 3D silicone printer is situated in the company’s laboratory on the Hönggerberg campus.