On a tip from a supplier, Choice Spine’s Steve Ainsworth attended an additive manufacturing conference being held in Knoxville, Tennessee, to investigate how the company could begin 3D printing their spinal implants. At that event, Ainsworth, executive vice president of strategy and technology, heard a presentation by Lonnie Love, a then-ORNL corporate fellow and industry thought leader whose research was based at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, a DOE user facility focused on applied research.
“What we wanted to do was a little different—first of all, it's medical, so it is outside the scope of what ORNL and DOE typically work on, plus we’re a small company,” he said. “The research we're looking at was on a much smaller scale than what they usually do. Fortunately, I got introduced to Jeff Cornett and found out about the RevV program and we went from there.”
Through the RevV program, the Choice Spine team worked with MDF advanced manufacturing experts Ryan DeHoff and Amy Elliott to inform the design of new implants and troubleshoot the manufacturing process.
“It was so helpful to be able to ask the experts our questions about 3D printing as we started developing our products,” Ainsworth said. The company worked collaboratively with both the MDF team and their suppliers manufacturing their spinal implants to talk through potential issues and prove out new methods. Choice Spine chose to move their product line forward using electron beam melting with titanium.
“Our interaction with MDF played a big role in guiding our selection of technology for our implants,” he said. “It was a big decision point because when we submit to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], we have to outline the manufacturing process we're using.”
In the time since that decision, Choice Spine has continued to grow—they employ 63 people and have 11 products that are 3D printed. Ainsworth says the company is exploring how they can bring manufacturing in house. He continues to trust and rely upon the expert advice from DeHoff and the team.
“I can pick up the phone and call Ryan when I have a question or am looking for advice. The MDF team sees a lot of the newer technology and it is such an advantage having ORNL 15 miles away from our office. The benefits we’ve seen under RevV are new products, increased sales, increased size of Choice Spine — it’s also building a great relationship and being able to ask experts questions anytime we need to.”