Like, surely you’re joking? Like one person will listen. Well, two at the very least. Brent Wright is an orthotist and prosthetist who is helping his fellow practitioners transition towards digital tools. He hopes that through these digital tools patients and practitioners alike can benefit. I’m Joris Peels, a 3D Printing consultant who is always curious about defining, implementing and engendering the newest 3D printing applications. I’ve done a few projects in orthotics, prosthetics and medical assistive devices using 3D printing. I’ve also helped make medical 3D printing materials specifically for orthoses and medical devices. I know very little about prostheses and orthoses but I’ve seen that ability to quickly make custom parts can have a huge impact in this field. I’m very inspired by Brent’s work, especially what he does for LifeNabled.
Since we’re both intensely curious about this space we decided to team up to have a podcast. The idea essentially is that we find people who know about materials, software, orthotics, prosthetics, 3D scanning and helping people with disabilities. Through interviewing them we will, together with you, learn about the future of orthotics and prosthetics. This will help Brent in his journey and will partially satiate my intense curiosity into all the areas where 3D printing meets the world.
But why is orthotics and prosthetics specifically interesting? People are unique which means that a lot of the parts we make to assist them could and should be unique. Now with 3D scanning, CAD and Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing we have a chance of perhaps making these devices better and less expensive at the same time. 3D Printers are ideal at making unique parts, at a specific time, at a specific location. There is therefore a good fit with both the orthotists and prosthetists practice. Whats more, low cost Material Extrusion, Powder Bed Fusion and Vat Polymerisation 3D Printers are becoming more reliable and repeatable. With low up front cost, comparatively low part cost and a relatively small form factor they could make an appearance in your workshop or office.
3D Printers are also good at making unique structures that can not be made through other means. Through FDM (also called Material Extrusion) we can now in a low cost machine print flexible materials such as polypropylene and TPU. These materials can then for example be printed to enclose air pockets to make sockets more comfortable. We could even vary the wall thicknesses and infill geometries of these pockets to give a person different hardnesses or resistance at many points. We could then make gradient or variable density sockets. Inexpensive variable density sockets. This development could then very quickly spread to all the offices that have 3D printers.
With Vat Polymerisation systems we could make high quality moulds for metal parts or thermoforming inserts for silicone parts. We could also make smooth pretty parts to improve the looks of orthotics or prosthetics. With Powder Bed Fusion we could make entirely new sockets that could have lattice structures for example. Whats more we can optimise one socket and one material for both slow heavy impacts and fast sharp impacts. Using MJF industrial 3D printers we could make custom sockets that will let people love their new part and see it as a “feature not a bug.” Through 3D printing services individual labs or workshops wouldn’t even need 3D printers but could have people design and make parts for them.
With 3D Scanning fitting could be improved and the time or number of meetings could be reduced. 3D Scanning would also enable a fully digital workflow and let a prosthetic be made in another state or country. With final fitting errors could be avoided and time could be saved. Parametric software and tools could let computer shy people edit, customise and use all manner of files. Meanwhile file repair software and workflow software or MES software would manage the entire process. FEA and other tools could be used to optimise designs. Communities of practitioners could learn online, together and exchange best practices. I’m intentionally using the conditional here.
Because as of yet we have no idea if Additive Manufacturing, digital designs, 3D scanning and software will transform daily orthotic and prosthetic practice. We know that many dental offices now have 3D printing and tens of millions of polymer and metal dental parts are being made each year. The digital wave has swept over dental. In hearing aids custom 3D Printed parts have completely swept over what was a milling and hand crafted industry and now make nearly all In The Ear hearing aids, millions a year. Invisalign 3D prints over a million thermoforming inserts a week to make its braces possible. So we know that there is a track record of 3D printing working well in mass customisation businesses where unique parts have to fit humans well. But, will this happen in orthotics and prosthetics? We have no idea. Literally no idea. And that’s what is so exciting about this. We may see a huge wave of digitalisation happen in the next few years or crickets…nothing.
Probably it will be a combination. Perhaps a new generation of practitioners will over the next decades slowly switch to digital. Or perhaps a few orthotics companies will rule the roost through a particular type of digital orthotics. Maybe we’ll see an Invisalign for prosthetics emerge. Probably large firms like OttoBock, Hanger Clinic, and Össur will do more in digital, but how successful will this be? Day to day who will use digital tools? How many? Will it be commonplace or only a few who make the switch? Will no one use 3D scanners but everyone do CAD? Will there be downloadable prostheses everywhere? Or will everyone deploy VR with patients? Will people be able to do virtual fittings? All of these things, we don’t know. We literally have no idea. So this is super exciting for us.
We both believe that the field of prosthetics and orthotics could really benefit from 3D printing and digital tools. We both don’t believe that every orthosis or prosthesis will be 3D printed. We do want to see where digitisation will occur and what will happen when it happens. So we’re going to be exploring this very exciting time with you, for you. We’re going to be finding and interviewing all the experts in the field. We hope to know what will happen before it happens and to understand what is happening. And we want to share this with you. So jump on in and check out some episodes.
Please let us know if you think that you’re a good guest for us or if you know of anyone! Or if you have a topic for us to discuss!