3 Technologies Changing Medical Contract Manufacturing Supply Chain

A report1 published by the IBM Institute for Business Value declares that three emerging technologies have the power to transition the world from “a hardware-based to a software-defined global supply chain” and that these technologies will radically alter the nature of manufacturing as we know it. 

medical device design and manufacturing

“A reconfigured global supply chain will emerge in the coming decade. It will radically change the nature of manufacturing.” - The New Software-Defined Supply Chain - preparing for the disruptive transformation of Electronics design and manufacturing, IBM® Institute for Business Value

The three technologies cited in the report are 3D printing, intelligent robotics and open-source electronics. The report makes it clear that these emerging technologies reach well beyond electronics and will affect a variety of manufacturing industries. “To compete in this fast-approaching future,” the report predicts, “enterprises and governments must understand and prepare for this new software-defined supply chain.

Medical device contract manufacturing today includes more innovative software-based features than the electro-mechanical medical products of ten years ago. The evolution of more sophisticated software based user interfaces, imaging and sensor technologies, and ability to collect, store, and analyze more data all indicate the continued growth and expansion of software in the future of medical device manufacturing. It is only reasonable to assume that software will become an even more important product line item and that medical device manufacturing companies will need to adapt to remain competitive.

How do these emerging technologies affect medical contract manufacturing? 

Here’s how moving from a hardware-based to a software-defined supply chain can change the playing field for a medical device manufacturing companies.

3D Printing

3D printing is now an integral part of rapid medical product development and manufacturing and it will ultimately affect the medical device supply chain. The ability to rapidly produce prototype parts used for engineering analysis is key. 3D printing is not only used for form and fit verification but also for tooling to support low quantity fabrication. With some of the new polymers available to this technology, part performance evaluations can be conducted with fabrication in production-grade biocompatible materials including high-performance thermoplastics. 

The ability to print a part from a CAD-based model facilitates collaboration between the mechanical design engineer, the manufacturing engineer and the tooling/fabrication vendor to identify opportunities for part/tooling cost optimization. 

Today, 3D part printing is an essential technology with great benefits for medical device design and manufacturing and, in the near future, this same technology has promise for the bioprinting of human body parts.

Intelligent Robotics

Minimally invasive surgeries can now be performed with sophisticated robot platforms utilizing robotic manipulators that are controlled remotely by a physician. Complex medical instrumentation platforms utilize multi-axis articulated robots for patient sample handling, fluidic dispense, and wellplate processing. It’s easy to recognize that robotics are emerging and playing a more expansive and important role in the fabrication of the goods we buy, in the military, in space exploration and now in healthcare and medical contract manufacturing.

Software for instrumentation platform robots can control trajectory path, ramp up/down velocities and accelerations and start/stop locations. The software user interface to create, document and test these high-tech robots is becoming simpler as well allowing for rapid prototyping of robotic handling systems.

Open Source Electronics

Open sourced electronics/software in the medical market space is most prevalent in the area of patient/medical records. The close cousin to open sourced is off-the-shelf electronics/software, the obvious difference being one of ownership. Off-the-shelf solution offerings are abundant for electronics/software and employed by many industries seeking the benefits of rapid product development. Utilizing off-the-shelf solutions can be more expensive if you get features/functions that are not needed but are bundled with the design for wider appeal. The ideal solution is to utilize proven, flexible, scalable off-the-shelf designs that can be easily transformed into semi-custom, hardware/software solutions that can meet the specific needs of each medical instrumentation project. 

Keeping a Competitive Edge

At a time when medical product companies are looking for differentiation in today’s changing market, medical contract manufacturers must be nimble, which requires the proven ability to “build extraordinary flexibility into their own supply chains.” 

Like it or not, we are quickly approaching a software-defined supply chain. Medical contract manufacturers need to recognize and tap into these emerging technologies to gain the technological edge that will keep them in the game with improved efficiencies and reduced medical product development cost. 

To remain competitive, medical product companies must develop in-house engineering and manufacturing expertise or partner with a medical contract manufacturer to leverage technologies like 3D printing, robotics and flexible, scalable electronic/software solutions. 

Infographic: Moving from a hardware-based supply chain to one that is "software-defined" medical manufacturing and supply chain


1 The New Software-Defined Supply Chain - preparing for the disruptive transformation of Electronics design and manufacturing, IBM® Institute for Business Value

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