Why Every Biopharma Lab Should Have a 3D Printer (and a Laser Cutter Too)

This article first appeared in the Timmerman Report.

If there’s something most drug development people can agree upon today it’s that the industry needs more valuable new products. Too many drugs seem incremental, and me-too drugs, while providing nuance, flexibility and value within a given drug class, are not by definition innovative, unless your definition of innovative is “like that, but in red.” And that’s why I’d like to propose something that would be simple, cheap and yet also have the potential to unlock creativity on a broad scale.

The biopharma industry should dive into the maker movement and buy up a bunch of 3D printers. Laser cutters too.

For those unfamiliar, a consumer-grade 3D printer is simply a device that, using one of several methods, extrudes plastic in a controlled way to build a three dimensional object. The plastic is cheap (it’s the same stuff LEGOs are made of) and the resulting items can be impressively complex. Look here to get an idea of the kinds of things people make.

Neat, huh?

When I first started learning about 3D printers, the first consumer models were just coming out. They have gone from novelty to ubiquitous in just a few years. They’re at hobby stores and even those strange stores you only ever see in airports. You know, the ones that sell stylized toys for businesspeople who’ve realized at the last minute they forgot to buy the loved ones a gift. But don’t underestimate 3D printers as cheap commodity tools. There may be an advantage in getting them into your lab.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why would you want one?

Let’s break up reasons into the practical, the aspirational and the big picture.

On the practical level—have you noticed just how many things in the lab are flimsy pieces of plastic? Test tube holders and racks. Spacers. Gel combs. Which leads to another question: Have you noticed how  a gel comb from Fisher Scientific can cost $77? With a 3D printer and some basic CAD software (there are many cheap and free programs) you could create a comb of whatever dimensions you’d like for a few dollars of plastic and a few hours printing time. Also, there are several online libraries (here’s one. Here’s another) where you can just search for patterns, without having to design items yourself. Like any kind of code, once a pattern is written, it’s there forever to be used and modified, creating exponential levels of creativity and a long tail market for ideas.

And that’s the second reason: aspiration. Using a 3D printer gives people an opportunity to tinker, to design, to grow. It’s been shown for a while that employee engagement is a key factor in increasing the probability of business success. For some workers (I freely admit, not all), the chance to design one’s own tools in the lab could lead to greater engagement in problems and experiments, and the opportunity to think of different ways to approach experiments. Tapping into that creativity, especially among technicians who do the majority of lab work, could be powerful. While the US leads the world in the leeway and freedom it allows technicians, I’ve known many people who work at that level whose talents weren’t fully utilized because there weren’t enough outlets for their thinking.

Last, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there have been some big picture issues lately with sustainability in the industry. While we’ve got more tools, more smart people, and more money in the industry than ever before, the rate of new drug approvals isn’t keeping pace. And with the new Tweeter-in-chief, it’s unlikely price increases will be able to keep the industry afloat, despite what some commentators say. That means companies need to start thinking outside of the box to come up with more new products. Several striking papers have come out over the past few years about using 3D printing to create various kinds of medical devices such as prosthetics, and even tissues. The 3D printing community has largely been driven by architects and engineers and designers. Biopharma and biomedical researchers ought to be able to figure out the business opportunities.

And I haven’t even gotten to laser cutters, which provide a whole additional way to create new designs and constructs (full disclosure: I know several people at GlowForge, a laser-cutter startup in Seattle) by etching and cutting a wide variety of materials at the micron scale. The potential for combining 3D printers and laser cutters to create innovative microfluidic devices, for example, seems huge.

So here’s my advice: most 3D printers are probably below your purchasing authority. Get one, sneak it in, hide it in your office or maybe on a low shelf near the old copies of Nature that your boss will never throw out, and tell anyone who asks that it’s a broken microwave. And then, when no one’s looking…create!

 

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