Lantos Technologies, a small startup spun out of MIT, has created the first FDA-clearedÂ digital ear-canal scanner. While that may seem wildly specific, itÂ could dramatically improve your grandfatherâ€™s hearing aid, Lady Gagaâ€™s in-ear monitor, and mission-critical communication devices used by the military.
The Lantos 3-D Ear Canal Scanner should be rolling out to audiologists by the end of the year and brings much-needed innovation to theÂ 36 million AmericansÂ who suffer from hearing problems and spend $6 billion dollars on hearing aids annually.
â€œThe current technology used in hearing aids is great, but weâ€™re using 1950s technology for the molds,â€ saysÂ Dr. Richard Kanor, a Brooklyn-basedÂ audiologist with overÂ 30 yearsÂ of experience. â€œThe holy grail has always been an more accurate, faster 3-D representation of the ear canal.â€ He hasnâ€™t used the Lantos scanner, but has been following the company and says â€œI donâ€™t think it will revolutionize the industry, but it will make a busy practice like mine more efficient.â€
The 1950s technology he references is a two-part silicone resin (medical parlance for â€œslimy gooâ€) that is injected into the patientâ€™s ear canal using aÂ disturbinglyÂ large syringe. The material sits in the patientâ€™s ear canal for 15 minutes until it hardens and is removed. The process is time-consuming, uncomfortable, and not especially accurate since it doesnâ€™t capture the way the ear canal changes shape while a person speaks or chews.
Lantosâ€™ new device could make that process obsolete. â€œWhat our scanner does is remove the silicone impression process from the workflow, as well as the shipping and receiving of the impression at the manufacturer and 3-D scanning of the impression at the manufacturer site in prep for 3-D printing,â€ explained Dr. Jennifer Rossi, Vice President of Marketing at Lantos, Â in an e-mail to Wired.
The Lantos Scanner captures high-def, dynamic data digitally instead of using surgical Silly Putty.
In place of messy resins, the Lantos Scanner inserts a small video camera into the ear. A flexible membrane surrounding the camera is filled with a specially formulated dye and conforms to the ear canal while the camera captures hundreds of images, including pictures of the ear canal in movement, that are stitched together to create a topographical map of the ear canal suitable for 3-D printing.
The data is then sent to a manufacturer and a hearing aid is produced, or potentially 3-D printed onsite as that technology continues to mature. Using the old method, the mold has to be sent to a hearing aidÂ manufacturer and a reverse mold is created. A casting is made using the reverse mold and then shipped back to the audiologist for a fit check. This process often needs to be repeated multiple times to ensure a proper fit. Some more advanced practices can 3-D scan the silicone mold and create a 3-D print, but itâ€™s still not as accurate or fast as working with the direct digital data thatÂ shouldÂ theoretically lead to a better fit in a shorter amount of time.
Dr. Kanor also notes that the Lantos scanner could make it easier to produce hearing aids for people who arenâ€™t candidates for traditional impressions. â€œItâ€™s less invasive.â€ he says. â€œThere can been accidents taking traditional impressions. Material gets stuck in crevices in the ear canal and can perforate the ear drum. The Lantos technology is much less invasive.â€
Medical applications of 3-D printing and scanning technology get less attention thanÂ new machinesÂ orÂ fun applications, but they account for the bulk of the revenue in the industry.Â Invisalign, a company that 3-D prints custom braces, generated almost as muchÂ revenue in 2012Â asÂ 3D SystemsÂ andÂ StratasysÂ â€” combined. Another MIT spin out, Brontes Technology, developed an 3-D oral scanner for the dental market that wasÂ acquiredÂ by 3M forÂ $95 million dollars.Â Oxford Performance MaterialsÂ is pushing the limits of 3-D printed implants and has a chance to disrupt the nearlyÂ billion dollar market for Cranio Maxillofacial devices. These all sound a bit boring in the context of bold claims about aÂ 3-D printing revolution, but are some of the biggest drivers of 3-D printing technology.