July 2013

3D printing: The shape of things to come

CONFERENCE COVERAGE: Orthotics Technology Forum 2013

By Emily Delzell

The Orthotics Technology Forum presentation given by Ben Boyer, CPed, was as much about what the speaker was wearing as what he was saying. Boyer, who is the lab manager at Kintec in Vancouver, Canada, wore a product he thinks may represent part of the future of orthotic design and manufacture—orthoses he’d printed with a hobbyist-level desktop 3D printer.

Boyer assured the audience that 3D printing (also called rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, and mass customization) has become more accessible and cost effective, and will soon change the orthotic industry in the same way digital technology has changed media consumption.

“3D printing takes a physical object and makes it a digital commodity that anyone can produce anywhere, anytime,” said Boyer, who made his orthoses using a free downloadable project from thingverse.com. The site allows users to share CAD designs, which others can download, customize, and print.

Boyer was quick to note his printed devices, designed by a layperson, were “pretty horrible” and coming apart after a few months.

“The life span of materials used in 3D printing can be short, and materials that work well for production scale are currently cost-prohibitive,” he said, but added, “It is a product and may be good enough for some patients to try. And it’s only going to get better.”

Large labs will use 3D printing to improve production efficiency, he predicted.

“There will be no grinding, no cutting, it’ll come out and you’ll add a topcover, and that’s it,” he said. “As multimaterial printers get more sophisticated you’ll be able to print the shell, padding materials, and topcover all a once.”

In his presentation Boyer discussed podiatrist James Woodburn, MPhil, PhD, FCPodMed, professor of rehabilitation sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, who is now using a 3D printer in his clinic to print orthoses and other devices.  Woodburn is also leading the A-FOOTPRINT project, an international consortium that will commercialize fully integrated, cost-effective 3D-printed foot orthoses with a 48-hour manufacture time.

Chris Lawrie, Delcam’s business development manager for healthcare, pointed out that Woodburn had attended the first OTF, held in 2011 in Bath, UK, and expressed interest in an early model 3D printer.

“This shows the technology forum works,” said Lawrie, who noted it’s the exchange of ideas in settings like the OTF that puts advances into practice.

Woodburn’s current printer cost about $3000, which Boyer says is typical for a consumer-level machine. Production-grade printers can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $600,000.

Where does all this leave labs and practitioners who make orthoses?

“Maybe it’s a change in what we do,” Boyer said. “We will still do the clinical work, but then perhaps provide a high-quality design file and sell that. We can also provide follow-up care when patients do make their own orthoses.”

Other paradigms might include creating apps that make orthoses, he said.

One Response to 3D printing: The shape of things to come

  1. Jim Woodburn says:

    This is a nice article but I’d just like to point out that we use both an SME-pilot factory based hig-end selective laser sintering machine and a desktop FDM printer which represent both ends of a potential business solution for 3D printing. We have just published one of the first clinical studies exploring biomechanical mode-of-action and patient experience using SLS and FDM devices in rheumatoid arthritis patient with early disease and associated impairments [1] and a kinematic-kinetic dose-response study [2]. Please email me at jim.woodburn@gcu.ac.uk for further information.
    [1] 1: Gibson KS, Woodburn J, Porter D, Telfer S. Functionally optimised orthoses for early rheumatoid arthritis foot disease: A study of mechanisms and patient experience. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2013 Jul 8. doi: 10.1002/acr.22060. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23836484.

    [2] Telfer S, Abbott M, Steultjens MP, Woodburn J. Dose-response effects of customised foot orthoses on lower limb kinematics and kinetics in pronated foot type. J Biomech. 2013 May 31;46(9):1489-95. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2013.03.036. Epub 2013 Apr 28. PubMed PMID: 23631857.

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