It can be hard to imagine a connection between 3D print, hearing aids, apps, Google and Apple. As Brian Dam Pedersen, CTO in GN Hearing, said in our interview: “When people hear the words ‘hearing aids’, they often associate it with these big and ugly devices that sit behind your grandmother’s ears and don’t really help. She still can’t hear what you are saying.” However, today’s hearing aids can be linked to great technical innovation and development! Read the interview to explore why.
How does GN Hearing use 3D printing in the production of hearing aids?
When we look at the technology that is used in the production of hearing aids, GN Hearing is one of the technological frontrunners. We use 3D printing in the design process, where it enables us to customize our hearing aids to the individual customer.
Specifically, we make what you call an impression, which basically is a 3D negative print of your ear canal. When we have the impression, we can 3D scan the model and send the scan to one of our factories where a customized shell is printed. We put the customized shell on a hearing aid, and then you have a hearing aid that fits your specific ear canal.
The process is convenient for our customers because when we scan the impression, we save a digital copy. So if your dog eats your hearing aid, we can easily replace it, without the customer having to get a new scan.
3D printing increases productivity and reduces costs
We have applied this production technique for 15 years now, so we have a lot of 3D printers in our factories producing hearing aids. As the technology has matured, it now makes economic sense for us to use the printers. We can print hundreds of devices at the same time, which drives the unit price down. Because of this reduction in costs, we have started to 3D print all parts of our prototypes. It is a great advantage because we can use a printed prototype to evaluate and test the product before sending it to the final production.
On a different note, we also work with the concept of 3D audio. 3D audio is something completely different from the print process. Still, it is a fascinating and essential component in our hearing aids. 3D audio refers to the way humans process sound. We try to preserve the notion of how it is to be in a room and maintain the sound as it is received by the individual.
Can you tell us more about some of your other digital initiatives?
One initiative we are very proud of is that you can connect your hearing aids to your smartphone, so they function as a set of headphones. Audio streaming enables the user to transmit all audio from your phone to the hearing aids. The new feature is handy for the user when he/she attends large dinners. Dinners are typically a situation, in which the sound in traditional hearing aids can be quite challenged by distance and noise.
With audio streaming, the user can turn on the microphone on the iPhone, and place it closer to the person the user is conversing with. The microphone receives the sound and transmits it into the hearing aids. On top of the audio stream technology, we have developed an app that controls noise. We developed the app was in collaboration with Apple and Google, as we are not experts on apps and user experience.
How has it been to work with Apple and Google? And how has GN Hearing benefitted from the partnerships?
I have been a part of these collaborations since we started seven years ago. The partnerships with Google and Apple has brought about some exciting projects. When you go into a partnership, each party should contribute with something valuable. For me, one of the exciting things about these projects has been that on the hearing aid side, we came with a lot of knowledge. But we also had a desire to bring new experiences to our users within the unique design constraints of hearing aids.
It was very beneficial for us to get an outside view on our products because it enabled us to come up with innovative user experiences given the design constraints. What do I mean by constraints? It might be obvious, but the major design constraint is that the hearing aids preferably should be as small as possible. It makes it challenging to employ new technology because it often results in higher battery consumption, and then you need to install more battery. How do you improve the user experience when there is no space for the extra battery? Both Google and Apple are experts in developing innovative consumer electronics and excel in user experience, so it made sense for us to reach out and form partnerships with them.
For GN as a company, we have realized significant benefits from working with Google and Apple. Generally speaking, it has been a very interesting task to combine the two areas of knowledge, and as a bonus, we got a lot of publicity. But the most important thing we take with us from the collaborations is that our consumers have benefitted from it.
Were your partnerships at any point challenging?
Oh yes. I don’t know how many times I have had to explain to various people in the organization that “No, we can’t just tell Apple to do this or that!”. Apple decides what to do with their device, and we have to live with it.
The hearing aid industry used to be relatively isolated. Collaborating with Apple and Google meant that we went from a point where we had control over the entire user experience to a situation where we share the responsibility. Whenever something was wrong with the hearing aid, it would be a mistake we had made internally in GN. Now, we have to get used to a world in which other companies have other priorities. We are only a part of a broader ecosystem, and we control only our part.
Working with both Google and Apple has had its challenges. Still, it has been a very good experience for us to learn and grow as a company.
Today, most people own a smartphone, but that has not always been the case – especially not for people aged +50. How has the development in electronic consumer devices influenced your work?
It is actually a very interesting aspect. I remember a discussion I had with one of my close colleagues a few years ago. Back then, he was in his fifties. At a meeting, he was playing around with his brand-new Nokia, and we discussed whether we should try to develop an app that could stream audio directly to the hearing aid.My colleague then said: “There are no old people who have a smartphone.” I looked at him and responded, “But you have one, and in ten years you will be the consumer that needs our hearing aids.”
The anecdote actually demonstrates the beauty of the hearing aid business. It is relatively easy to predict the market because you can look at people in their fifties, decode their habits, and in ten years, they will be the users! It makes it easy for us to accommodate those habits in our products. That is also why the smartphone and app revolution in relation to hearing aids was somewhat predictable.
What kind of skills do you look for when you hire or work with students?
Primarily, what we look for is young people with a T-shaped profile. What do I mean by T-shape? You need to have extensive knowledge of one field, like engineering, and this knowledge represents the vertical line in the T. However, it is also valuable that you are good at, e.g. communicating or have experience in another field that can complement your knowledge of engineering. These kinds of skills and expertise represent the bar on top of the T.
In essence, it is valuable for us if you can bring a broad knowledge of several areas, or at least the curiosity or willingness to learn new things! It is essential because nobody works in a vacuum today. If you are unable to understand each other, it is impossible to move a project forward!
What advice would give to student who wish to use or work with new technologies such as 3D printing?
My primary advice is to be curious because that is the way you get better. The people who are most successful at GN are open and willing to learn new things. Secondly, it is essential to remember that whenever you begin a new job, realize that you don’t know everything. However, you do bring some valuable information – otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.