3D Printing of Hearing Aids at Widex, Denmark

This Thursday I visited the Danish hearing aid manufacturer Widex to see some of their 3D Printing of shells. Klaus Vaarbroe at Widex has developed Widex’ 3D Printing process over the past 11 years. He was very hospitable, showed me around and explained the different steps: order intake, scanning, modeling, printing, mounting and polishing. He also shared some images of the process (the first three pictures below).

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With 3D Printing instead of manual labor, 50 percent of the previous workforce is now doing four times as much work – an eight fold productivity increase in Widex’ manufacturing of hearing aid shells. It should also be pointed out that the quality of 3D Printed shells is substantially higher.

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Widex headquarter, in Lynge, north of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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An old Hearing aid shell that was produced using Selective Laser Sintering (a form of 3D Printing) back in the early 2000s, a technology that was eventually rejected by Widex and the other hearing aid manufacturers.

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Widex was just recently received the European Patent Award for having patented the use of 3D Printing to make hearing aid shells.

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3D Printing and the Hearing Aid industry

After two months at the University of Cambridge researching 3D printing I would like to share some observations with you. They are based upon my studies thus far of how the hearing aid industry adopted it for producing hearing aid shells in the period 1999-2007:

1) The shift didn’t cause any change in the competitive dynamics between entrants and incumbents, or between the big players, which is actually precisely what theory would suggest.

2) In contrast to what e.g. The Economist has stated regarding how 3D Printing would bring back manufacturing to the west, it has rather sparked a wave of offshoring in the hearing aid industry.

3) The firms adopting later may have received a cost advantage vis-à-vis pioneers, who at times encountered challenges as the technology was still not entirely ready.

4) Yes, 3D Printing has opened up for entirely new innovation opportunities.

5) These opportunities have not been fully exploited yet. Strategic and organizational aspects seem to be the main explanations for this.

I will post updates on this blog as my research progresses.

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