Advances in 3D printing have been driving medtech innovation for some time, and every new technological advance offers new potential for progress. Cynthia Star is helping drive such innovation as director, technology transfer, Johnson & Johnson, 3D Printing Center of Excellence. Inspired by the opportunities offered by 3D printing, Star is helping R&D, marketing, supply chain, and partners around the world work together to bring about medtech advances.
MD+DI asked Star a few questions about 3D printing’s current role in healthcare innovation, the challenges engineers face, what steps the medtech industry should take next, and more.
As director of technology transfer for Johnson & Johnson’s 3D Printing Center of Excellence, can you explain the role of the group and a few of its accomplishments?
Star: Our team acts as an “innovation hub” within Johnson & Johnson, cultivating a strong pipeline by incorporating 3D printing technologies across Johnson & Johnson’s businesses. We collaborate daily with R&D, marketing, and supply chain to identify and drive 3D printing innovations and processes. We also look at ways to augment our work by partnering with the top minds around the world, as working alongside them allows us to remain on the cutting-edge of 3D printing and new technologies.
Can you explain the types of 3D printing technologies that are being used in your group? Have there been any particular technologies that have enabled breakthroughs for J&J?
Star: The team works with a wide range of materials and unique processes, including metals, metal coatings and alloy variations, polymers, and electronic sensors. We’re also working to advance bioprinting in its early stages—as that technology progresses, printing bioactive structures and more-complex tissues can enable regenerative therapies.
How can 3D printing help meet any unmet needs for patients, clinicians, and healthcare systems?
Star: Our group believes that 3D printing can help us re-imagine innovation to deliver better health for humanity, because we can potentially serve patients globally with more personalization, speed, and efficiency. With 3D printing, design freedom increases our ability to customize, providing us with potential to address significant unmet patient needs in ways that were not possible before. It can help improve access to healthcare products and solutions, along with [achieving] greater efficiencies in terms of production, assembly, and supply chain.
Are there any technology challenges currently faced when using 3D printing, and how can they be overcome?
Star: One significant challenge is scaling from proof of concept to manufacturing. The versatility of 3D technology allows design options that are not possible with subtractive manufacturing, the traditional process of cutting away at solid material. This raises new considerations, such as defining support structures, number of parts on the build plate, part removal, powder removal, and secondary processes. Knowing how to approach validation to meet the 3D printing guidance from the U.S. FDA adds another layer onto de-risking the technology to be ready to scale.
Is 3D printing advancing personalized medicine, or are there other reasons to use 3D printing?
Star: Personalization is a major component of 3D printing technology. It allows for greater customization in solutions and products that range from personalized, data-powered consumer products to custom-designed implants and surgical tools.
There are many other reasons to use 3D printing. For example, 3D printing provides the potential to create products that are unattainable through traditional manufacturing processes, and it may allow solutions to be delivered faster, more efficiently, and in a sustainable manner, even in remote areas.
What could ease the work of an engineer involved in 3D printing?
Star: Innovation in the industry is rapidly evolving, so keeping up with the pace of advances in the technology takes strategic partnerships and collaborations. We don’t attempt to be an expert in everything—we understand where 3D printing can provide the most value for the business, and then target accordingly.
What advice do you have for industry and academia working in this space?
Star: For both academia and industry, my advice is simple: keep raising the bar on innovation. Ultimately, my focus is to provide healthcare solutions grounded in unmet needs. For Johnson & Johnson to deliver on this promise, we look to continually challenge the status quo and find new ways of innovating so we can integrate disruptive technologies into our portfolio.
You have served a number of roles at J&J. Can you share how those perspectives have helped you support or bring about program or product advancements?
Star: I’m fortunate that I had opportunities to focus my career on developing medical device solutions, most significantly in diabetes, oncology, nephrology, and orthopedics. The considerations for product advancements for specific disease states, with or without 3D printing, always start with understanding unmet needs. I approach a program from a place of driving solutions and next consider the tools available to deliver on the solution. The umbrella of opportunities via 3D printing is vast, so evaluating from all perspectives—design or process innovation, speed to market, efficiency, sustainability, etc.—is vital.
Can you explain the importance of collaborating across R&D, marketing, and supply chain disciplines?
Star: The patient’s voice is critical to scoping out 3D printing programs, with R&D, marketing, and supply chain coming to the table with different perspectives. The earlier we collect this information, the more success we have in providing the right solutions, whether it’s an innovative 3D printing surface structure to accelerate bone ingrowth, reducing the weight of a handheld instrument via topology optimization, or 3D printing of molds for a manufacturing process pilot. These are typical 3D printing opportunities that we can deliver by fully understanding the end-to-end value proposition.
Would you like to share your experience being a women leader in this space and offer advice to other women in medical technology development?
Star: A few pieces of advice:
- Take on a challenge—I have learned most from opportunities that seemed most daunting.
- Don’t allow traditional approaches to limit your thinking—your perspective is just as important and will probably create an environment where people feel free to voice their opinions. This often leads to better solutions.
- Promote your abilities—doing a good job is not enough.
- Find your North Star—knowing what your personal mission is will lead to passion for your career.