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Hidden Champions series part 2: Anatomics

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Anatomics occupies a demanding niche, providing custom products that help surgeons do their job, and exports to 20 countries. In the second instalment of our five-part series, the company’s Robert Thompson tells Brent Balinski about how the company responds to its market’s need, a “3D printed” skull implant, and a recent successful collaboration with CSIRO.

There’s no shortage of articles and talkfests about what the future of Australian manufacturing might look like.

Nimble SMEs offering niche, high-value products, created through mass customisation by highly-skilled workers (often aided by 3D printing) who are commercialising innovation are parts of the imaginary model that often gets constructed.

Anatomics is one company that neatly matches the characteristics above. It dates back to 1996 and the commercialisation of Brisbane-based PhD research.

“The foundation research developed was stereolithographic biomodelling, now referred to more broadly as patient specific surgical solutions” Robert Thompson, the company’s Technology & Production Manager, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Anatomics has long been using 3D printing for purposes including its patented BioModel process (which converts CT scans into plastic surgical models of things such as organs).

Its main business is in craniofacial reconstruction technology, tailored to each patient’s needs, and provided to surgeons around the world.

The company also has a range of in-house software.

Anatomics began with one employee, Thompson, and currently employs 15 at its St Kilda headquarters. It consolidated operations at its second site in Melbourne (which received ISO 13485 certification last year), migrating from the Brisbane site in 2006.

Important to the company’s growth, which it plans to continue through the release of a new microporous implant product, has been its ability to keep surgeons happy.

“That’s one of our key strengths: being able to be very responsive to individual surgeon’s requests,” explained Thompson.

Meeting the demands of a profession synonymous with precision is vital to the company’s continued success.

“We have an electronic system that enables customers to give us their exact requirements, and basically we can use that to satisfy most of our order details,” explained Thompson.

“But if we need to get input from surgeons regarding difficult cases and detailed designs and things like that, we can engage in online surgery planning as well with them and design the implant online and surgeons really like that - it gives them a chance to see the implants being designed.”

Earlier this year a peculiar bit of surgery at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands (and Anatomics’ usefulness to the surgeons involved) gained worldwide attention.

An unnamed young lady of 22 had a rare condition which caused her skull to thicken, both inwards and outwards, putting great strain on her brain.

“Ultimately, she slowly lost her vision and started to suffer from motor coordination impairment,” said the UMC’s brain surgeon Dr. Bon Verweij in a statement.

“It was only a matter of time before other essential brain functions would have been impaired and she would have died.”

After a 23-hour operation, the woman’s skull was completely replaced with a plastic substitute - manufactured by Anatomics - which the university and many others reported as being 3D printed.

It was a tremendous achievement and the patient’s reported return to work three months after having nearly her entire cranial vault replaced was inarguably a win.

However, the skull was not 3D printed, contrary to reports by publications including The Huffington Post and Wired.

“A lot of the media around that incorrectly reported that the implant was actually 3D printed, where it actually was not 3D printed,” said Thompson.

“3D printing was used, as it is, in all of our processes as part of the manufacturing processes, but not the actual implant.”

How the two-piece implant was created was a trade secret, but it was not made on one of Anatomics’ 3D Systems machines.

Thompson’s company is hoping another boost to the attention it receives around the world will come from the new material it developed in collaboration with the CSIRO: PoreStar.

“It’s a porous star-shaped particle implant,” explained Thompson, who cites the product, currently being launched, as an example of a successful collaboration between private business, researchers, and government.

“And that was supported by the Victorian government’s technology voucher program,” he noted.

The innovation was registered last year as Australian trademark 1560161, and Anatomics is currently in the process of promoting it to customers.

“It will create new jobs... as well,” said Thompson.

“We’re just gearing up now to start selling that to our re-sellers overseas and promoting it throughout Australia as an Australian-made alternative to the currently available products, which are all made overseas.”

Looking abroad, increasing its exports is of great importance to Anatomics, which currently exports to about 20 countries, and it hopes to earn increased overseas revenues from PoreStar.

“Australia is a relatively small market,” said Thompson.

“So the export market is of greater importance. It’s one of our key strategies to grow our export business to ensure the growth of the company.”

For an introduction to Manufacturers' Monthly's Australian Hidden Champions series, click here. Part one, featuring PWR Performance Products, can be seen at this link.

(Images supplied by Anatomics.)

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