The Medtronic product portfolio is so broad and so commonly used that the company claims to “improve the lives of two people every second”  – a figure that includes, no doubt, the millions of Medtronic pacemakers that keep hearts beating around the clock . While the company’s decades-long legacy is rooted in cardiac and vascular devices, its ~$30b in sales, ~$99b in assets, and ~53k patents also include spinal, musculoskeletal, neuromodulation, and diabetes devices among others.
The company has invested heavily in internal R&D capabilities  and reported ~$2b in R&D expenses last year . Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that Medtronic is, like countless other companies with physical products developed and produced at high cost, experimenting with additive manufacturing; intuitively, one would expect additive manufacturing to create some opportunity, whether it be in process improvement, cost savings, or portfolio growth – though it remains to be seen if these opportunities bear out.
Today, Medtronic uses additive manufacturing in two primary ways: as a training tool and as an R&D tool. As a training tool, the company prints examples of abnormal physiologies on which physicians can train – essentially, anatomical conditions that are rarely encountered in practice and upon which physicians therefore have limited opportunities to gain experience. As an R&D tool, additive manufacturing allows Medtronic to rapidly prototype devices in the process of development; the company states they are running seven printers non-stop for this purpose, and that development activities that once took months can now take days .
These existing applications of machine learning appeal well to the commonly-held belief that additive manufacturing may be somehow easier or more economical than “traditional” manufacturing  – and therefore allow Medtronic’s R&D to be less costly. In reality, the shift in processes could have a neutral or even negative impact on economics; in addition to the investment in printing devices, Medtronic must compete for new talent to utilize the machines. There are numerous online postings for additive manufacturing engineer roles at medical device companies, many of which have been up for several months  – suggesting a potential, shortage of appropriate talent. Additionally, additive manufacturing, as a newer technology, may present a more “level playing field” for device companies and a loss of existing R&D competitive advantage that large companies like Medtronic may enjoy.
While Medtronic has embraced opportunities to use additive manufacturing in the development of and training on devices, they have explicitly opted to deprioritize the final frontier: personalized medicine, or the use of additive manufacturing to create devices customized to a single patient. On the subject of using additive manufacturing to create personalized devices, Michael Hill, PhD, Medtronic VP of Corporate Science, has said “‘It’s going to take time and determination. It’s one thing to do a prototype, it’s another thing to say we’re actually going to do it for the long haul .’” Medtronic’s own website affirms that the company views personalized medicine through additive manufacturing as a longer-term goal that is less addressable than R&D opportunities: “It may be years before those kinds of ideas are fully developed, but 3D printing is already having a major impact on research and development.” .
However, this appears to be a missed opportunity when one considers the successes of other device manufacturers – other large device manufacturers are already commercializing personalized devices (e.g., Depuy Synthes), and smaller device and biomatter start-ups are popularizing personalized medicine and in some cases even bringing products to market (e.g., Exovite). By dismissing this potential application of additive manufacturing, Medtronic may be missing out on opportunities to grow their product portfolio, generate incremental revenues, and help patients – unless, however, I am myself falling prey to another commonly-held myth of additive engineering, which is that the technology will rapidly allow for mass customization of products . In reality, it is quite possible that the specific technologies which would allow for customization of products in the Medtronic portfolio (e.g., cardiovascular devices) would be too unproven and risky to use.
Given the number of people in the HBS community with medical device experience, both as device manufacturers and as physicians, I would be curious to hear their comments on this exact point: am I overstating the potential to apply additive manufacturing in a personalized medicine context? And if so, are there any concern about the applications listed above that are already on the market?
 Medtronic. “About Medtronic,” 2018. [Online] http://www.medtronic.com/us-en/about1.html [Accessed: 11 November 2018]
 Wasserman. “Medtronic – Top R&D innovators in med tech.” 18 July 2016. Fierce Biotech. [Online] https://www.fiercebiotech.com/special-report/medtronic-med-tech-r-d-report [Accessed: 11 November 2018]
 Medtronic. “FY17 integrated performance report.” [Online] http://www.medtronic.com/content/dam/medtronic-com/global/Corporate/Documents/integrated-performance-report.pdf [Accessed: 11 November 2018]
 Medtronic. “3D printing: A new frontier in healthcare.” [Online] http://www.medtronic.com/us-en/about/news/3D-printing-at-Medtronic2.html [Accessed: 11 November 2018]
 Roca, Vaishnav, Mendonça, & Morgan. “Getting past the hype about 3-D printing,” 2017. MIT Sloan Management Review. [Online] https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/getting-past-the-hype-about-3-d-printing/ [Accessed: 11 November 2018]
 Google. Careers search for “additive manufacturing OR 3d printing AND medical devices” + “Cambridge, MA”. [Online] https://www.google.com/search?q=3d+printing+medical+devices&ibp=htl;jobs#fpstate=tldetail&htidocid=stGhZIMBzNRcK0JbAAAAAA%3D%3D&htivrt=jobs [Accessed: 11 November 2018]