Lately it’s become more common that we ever could have anticipated to see so many 3D printed prosthetics, with a range of innovative new designs now available and being prompted due to the efforts and major strides of organizations like e-NABLE—and their truly amazing volunteers all around the world.
We’ve been inspired time and time again, from seeing a child in Uganda now able to enjoy his 3D printed prosthetic arm after losing his limb in an animal attack, to a four-year-old in Chile who received an amazing Spider Man Team Unlimbited arm. While we may surely take having our arms and legs for granted, these children—and many others—are extremely grateful to have the chance to do the most simple things, and to finally be more independent in gripping a variety of items and performing basic tasks.
Now, students at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA are taking that idea another step further in creating not prosthetics, but 3D printed ankle foot orthotics (AFOs) that allow patients both affordability and speed in production. In collaborating with 3D Platform, who presents their work as a case study, a large-format 3D printer was used for patients, mainly children, who require braces to help them with both foot and ankle disorders.
Those needing an AFO are traditionally finding them very costly, as well as taking a much longer period of time to be made. Most young patients right now are forced to wait over around a month to receive an AFO, after including scanning, molding, vacuum heat forming and then fitting. Even worse, the AFO could cost as much as $2000.
The students at Gonzaga discovered there was great and obvious improvement needed in this area, and sought progressive solutions upon discovering new avenues being presented today, like 3D printing. Their mission was to research, develop, and offer simple AFOs as quality devices that are strong, durable, and also offer comfort for patients so that they keep wearing them.
The research students completed the following in their journey to help patients:
- 3D scanning to collect ankle and foot measurement data
- Designing a 3D model of the AFO
- Using a large 3D printer thanks to 3D Platform
- Testing multiple materials for the 3D print
“We want to 3D print large braces (up to 18 inches), and we need to print with a variety of materials as we research the best design for the braces,” says McKenzie Horner, one of the researchers at Gonzaga University. “3D Platform helped solve the problem by providing a versatile large-format 3D printer that helps us with our materials research and AFO printing.”
“We were able to print a full-scale proof of concept immediately, and the open platform software capabilities allow us to prepare a print easily from a doctor’s 3D scan of a patient’s leg.”
The research demonstrated the clear and substantial benefits of 3D printing. While they are evident in many sectors from that of medical to serious industrial applications and manufacturing, for creating the AFO, the students quickly realized they were onto something. In experimenting with materials, they found both PLA and PETG to be durable and affordable. Not only that, production time was cut down enormously, allowing for a two-day turnaround time. According to the research team, setting up the design can take just minutes, while there is then just a wait for the print to be completed.
The price is diminished all around as well as the prints are easier to make and also cut down on the amount of labor required for production of the AFO. Excess material, such as that found during the traditional heat molding process, is eliminated as well with 3D printing.
The students will keep pursuing this project, examining the full potential of 3D printed AFOs as they experiment with other new materials too. Patients today requiring an orthosis certainly have a lot to look forward to with the 3D printed version, as they will now be able to appreciate high quality, affordability, and unprecedented speed in production.
A great part of the success so far too is due to the student researchers’ work with Roscoe, Illinois-based 3D Platform. They make large-format 3D printers for industrial uses, with their 3DP Workbench being the flagship product developed for the needs of professional users whose input they found quite valuable while in the development phase. Their focus, outside of this latest and quite noble venture to help those in need find a better solution for orthotics, is to allow for affordable hardware that offers open market software and control solutions. What are your thoughts on this project? Discuss further in the 3D Printed Orthotics forum over at 3DPB.com.