Learning the ropes: The role 3D printing could play within orthosis and prosthesis

Garrett Harmon, application engineer at 3D printing firm, Essentium, explains why clinicians shouldn’t fear the introduction of 3D printing within orthosis and prosthesis.

Advances in 3D printing machines, materials, and processes are putting new and powerful capabilities in the hands of Orthotic and Prosthetic (O&P) clinicians. With recent innovations in 3D printing platforms, O&P clinicians can seamlessly design and create bespoke devices that are lightweight, affordable, and comfortable for patients, more easily and efficiently than they can with traditional methods.

Patients around the world are pushing for more functional prosthetic devices which 3D printing can deliver. With 3D printing technology, O&P designers can make parts that interact fluidly with the human body while accurately mimicking natural human movement.

Inherently a bespoke industry, prosthetics are handcrafted by clinicians for each patient and clinicians often take great pride in the prostheses they make. However, the process can take days or weeks, often asking patients to wait before they’re outfitted with their prothesis. 3D printing expedites and empowers the bespoke nature of prosthetics, giving clinicians a very capable tool to create unique limbs for individual patients, and do it in far less time.

Better materials

Another key benefit of 3D printing is the introduction of exciting new materials to the O&P market, which will improve the fit and comfort of these devices. This is vitally important as a poorly fitted prosthesis can cause considerable discomfort.

Many of the materials used in the O&P market today, such as carbon fiber sheets, are not the most comfortable. Silicon liners can be used as an alternative to provide a better fit and better comfort, however, this can increase the cost and wait time for a full prosthesis. 3D printing offers exciting alternatives to carbon fiber and silicon which will not only provide reliable strength but also long-lasting comfort.

Developing a comfortable, properly fitting prosthesis is not just a science, it is also an art. 3D printing has the power to take today’s bespoke, artisanal manufacturing process and transform it into a highly repeatable and consistent process, which ultimately results in more effective clinics and better patient outcomes.

Involving clinicians

Given these many benefits, the O&P industry remains reluctant to fully embrace a 3D-printing manufacturing process. This reluctance, however, is understandable. As is the case with any new technology, a large learning curve and lack of trust can prevent adoption. To address this reluctance, the 3D printing industry has created solutions to make designing and printing devices more accessible and trustworthy as a manufacturing method.

Clinicians have many questions. How do I know what I’m designing on the computer is what I want? How do I know the machine is printing something as strong as what I can make by hand? 3D printing software is making it easier for clinicians to feel connected to the 3D printing manufacturing process. For example, when clinicians work by hand and want to change the shape of a prosthetic socket, they apply heat to the plastic and manipulate the material to better fit the limb in the device. To engage these clinicians more closely in the process, 3D printing software has features that enable them to mimic this action and adjust material in the software almost identically to how material would be adjusted while fitting or making a device.

Essentially, when a clinician sits down at their computer, they see functions on the screen that match the functions they have been doing for years by hand. Better still, with 3D printing, an individual device can be adjusted with 0.1mm laser accuracy, ensuring that the final product is created exactly to the clinician’s design and the patient’s needs.

With 3D printing, it is also possible to take a specific set of conditions such as patient age, weight, activity level, etc. to determine the thickness, strength, and material needed in the prosthesis. This process enables clinicians to consistently design and reproduce strong devices based on proven materials and 3D printing processes. This repeatability allows for clinicians to gain trust in the technology to get strong, high-quality results every time.

3D printing will not replace clinicians. It’s not intended to. It’s intended to enable them to create prosthetics and orthotics faster, cheaper, and better than before, and to deliver prosthetics that are more accessible and affordable for many more people around the world. In this way, 3D printing has the power to deliver a happier and healthier life for millions of people.

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