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Anticipating an additive future

Andy Christensen pioneered AM advances—and now pursues its still-untapped potential

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By Randy B. Hecht

Additive manufacturing has sparked a revolution not only in the way we build things, but also in the way we build alliances.

At conferences such as MTC, in joint ventures to address AM challenges, and in day-to-day exploration of the technology’s capacity and potential, AM has inspired unprecedented cross-sector collaboration by governments, industry, academia, and associations. This spirit of shared knowledge and collective interest in creating a better future also motivates us to follow the careers and explore the ideas of visionaries in this field.

That motivation led us to Andy Christensen, who has been achieving breakthrough innovations in additive metals since 2005 and who is profiled in the latest edition of Oerlikons customer magazine BEYOND SURFACES. We found his ideas so intriguing that we offer an expanded look at his comments here.

A record of FDA firsts

Christensen was the founder of Medical Modeling, a company that worked in support of Gainesville, Florida-based Exactech on the manufacture of an acetabular product that became the first additive metal implant in the U.S. to earn FDA clearance. Subsequently, Medical Modeling provided manufacturing support to Frisco, Texas-based 4Web Medical in development of a 3D printed metal spinal implant that became the first 3D printed spinal implant in the U.S. to earn FDA approval.

He sold Medical Modeling in 2014 and for the past five years has pursued new business ventures. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Radiology.

We spoke with him about his priorities in AM innovation and his vision of an AM-enabled future of medical advances.

Bridging professional “language” barriers

One key to successful cross-sector collaboration is finding a common language. This aids in establishing and realizing objectives that team members may share but also may express differently. Christensen, whose educational background is in business, recognizes the importance of being able to serve as a kind of translator when working with project partners.

“I don’t come from a surgical background, nor an engineering background,” he says. “But I had to speak both of those languages to get stuff done. When you can get them talking the same language—which is probably having a surgeon learn a little about engineering and having the engineer learn a little bit about surgery—you find there’s common ground to speak on, and then they start solving problems together. If you have the same language, you can more easily solve problems, but it takes a while to build that common language.”

A giant—but overwhelming—toolbox

With that in mind, he saw his (and his company’s) role as “knowing what technology was out there and then listening and being able to put things together. That, for me, became maybe the most important part. AM is an interesting, flexible tool that can be used for all kinds of things. For me, a lot of it has to do with solving problems,” he says. “And the way you would even figure out that there is a problem is by listening, interacting with the people who are doing the work.”

How does the interplay and knowledge exchange with surgeons work in the development of new solutions or applications?

“I spend a lot of time with surgeons and a lot of time in surgery, trying to figure out where clinical problems exist. If I have a 3D printing mindset, I can focus on problems that could be solved by better three-dimensional visualization and or guidance in the personalization of surgery,” he says.

Because AM’s scope and potential for problem-solving are so extensive, Christensen likens it to a “giant toolbox” that is “almost overwhelming” for surgeons who have yet to learn how to think about it. He finds it helpful to help them make sense of it at first by “limiting the scope, showing how it’s applicable in certain clinical situations, and handing it to them as needed. You have to show them how to use it before they can grasp it, but once surgeons use it the first time, they get it.”

Looking to the AM future

We asked Christensen what he sees on the horizon for AM’s use in medical device and what’s on his wish list for future innovation. He offered several glimpses of a fascinating future for the industry and for the people it serves.

Personalized products

One key development he’s watching relates to personalized products: “things that are patient-matched and made for just one person, like total joint replacements,” he said. “I think we’ll see more personalization for surgical devices that today are mostly not personalized, like hips and knees. Today, most of that work is done using off-the-shelf sizes. In the future, there will be more ability to personalize that. The software workflows will make it easier, and the hardware on the output side will become more streamlined.”

Implant innovation

He’s also following medical AM’s impact on implant production. “There, it’s less about personalization and more about making something that’s well-suited to being an implant, to meet the needs of a specific patient population, not a specific patient. I think we will see more work in additive metals for making implants that share the load with the underlying bone structure,” he said. “The concept is that bone likes to be stressed to live and to thrive and keep healthy. If bone isn’t stressed much, it starts to whither away. So if you can stress the bone properly, you’re able to keep volume, which is good. I think additive will play a role in providing, instead of big, bulky implants for the knee and hip, devices that are actually more about load-sharing. They’re strong enough to do their job but also share a bit of that load to keep the underlying bone healthy and vibrant.”

Regenerative medicine

The third area of innovation that Christensen is tracking relates to “regenerative medicine—replacing body parts with body parts. “This is about your own cells and fixing a problem with a particular body part by putting these cells back into your own body and creating parts that are indistinguishable in the long term from the parts they’re replacing,” he says. “I think this will be 3D printing’s largest impact in the healthcare space. It’s fairly early, but there’s a lot of research going on and a probability that it will happen. It’s just a question of whether it’s 10 or 30 years from now.”

From customers to creators

In addition, an emerging trend that has his attention is a potential shift in hospitals’ role from purchaser to creator of implants, guides, and other tools now sold to them by the industry. “The hospitals are now working on doing their own things,” he says. “There have been a few moves in the past year that have made some of the technology easier to grasp, so hospitals are doing some of this work themselves in their own facilities. As they do that work, a lot of things come up, because hospitals typically don’t manufacture things. I’ve been spending a bit of time working in that way with hospitals, thinking about the regulatory environment, the legal environment, and the quality standards that would need to be followed to do this work in a hospital environment versus having industry provide it.”

Listening to Christensen’s view of AM’s future can be like seeing that giant toolbox: perhaps overwhelming, but also invigorating and inspiring. Oerlikon looks forward to joining forward-thinking pioneers in bringing AM-powered visions to reality.

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