By Joris Peels | Inside 3DP
What is the most successful 3D printed product in the world? In which industry will 3D printing supplant mass production first as the default technology? The answer will probably surprise you but it is: Hearing aids. Over 10,000,000 pairs of 3D printed In The Ear hearing aids have been sold to date. Virtually all custom hearing aid production is done through 3D printing. In the custom hearing aid market 3D printing has swept away traditional manufacturing technologies. Hearing aids is a portent for other industries.
Why don’t we know this?
With all the 3D printing hype why did we not hear about this hearing aid 3D printing thing? Why hasn’t this been in the news? After all, plenty of 3D printing things have been in the news? Why not the most widespread example of manufacturing for end consumers using 3D printing?
In the 90’s when people first started to work towards 3D printing hearing aids at scale there was no 3D printing hype. 3D printing was known then by many different names from free form fabrication to rapid prototyping. It wasn’t being presented to the media as a revolution. It was just a production technology. Do you know what technology makes Coke bottles? What makes the buttons on your keyboard? Probably not. We are often very ignorant about manufacturing technologies and there is also very little information out there on injection molding, blow molding and all the other technologies that make our mass produced world. It was the same with the 3D printing of hearing aids.
Additionally the main target audience for hearing aids is often a more senior group of people. One not too easily wood by the newfangled. A hearing aid has to be reliable because it is a device that replaces or augments a sense. A wearer of a hearing aid depends on this device. In this case marketing messages such as „well crafted” or „engineered to perfection” would be more assuring than „made with awesome new technology you’ve never heard of.” The hearing aid market is a very profitable one and players watch each other closely. There is a a lot high tech design and developments inside hearing aids and often these processes are kept secret.
The companies are traditionally less open and less communicative than companies in other industries. Also the hearing aid business is a different one than most. Its a consumer product, sold to insurers through audiaticians. Depending on the country the customer could have a choice in a hearing aid or not at all for example. So just like you have no idea how your laptop is made over 10,000,000 people are wearing 3D printed hearing aids without knowing it.
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