When retired US Marine Dan Lasko of Bethlehem, PA served in Afghanistan, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) and he lost the lower part of his left leg. Thanks to advances in prosthetic technologies made over the past decade, this hasn’t stopped him from participating in the physical activities that he enjoys, such as playing football, running marathons, and competing in triathlons. But there was one more thing that Lasko wanted to do that he couldn’t accomplish in the way he wanted with the prosthetic that he had: teach his two young sons to swim.
Now, thanks to a prosthetic device developed by Northwell Health, that will be just another thing nobody can stop him from doing. The company has announced the development of a prosthetic leg called “The Fin”. This pioneering device is no less than a 3D printed amphibious prosthetic leg and is the result of exhaustive development efforts among Northwell, Eschen Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratories, and Composites Prototyping Center. 3D printing has come into play before for prosthetics targeted toward use in swimming, and The Fin seems to offer an advanced design benefiting from intensive design work. Scientist Todd Goldstein of Northwell Health’s 3D printing division not only has high hopes for the device but truly enjoyed the process of creating it:
“The Fin attaches to a standard prosthetic with ease. My hope is that this device creates unforeseen opportunities for amputees everywhere…I’ve got the coolest job where one day I’m printing out hearts to hopefully help a little kid another day it’s printing out a leg for a marine to help him swim.”
And it doesn’t look like those are pie-in-the-sky dreams either. With the aid of the 3D printed prosthetic, Lasko was able to walk to the edge of the pool with his kids and dive right in with them. Previously, a turn in the pool had required him to hop on one leg to the pools edge and then ease himself in from sitting, not exactly ideal, and something that served to emphasize a loss that he had worked so hard to overcome in other areas in his life. For him, it wasn’t just a matter of finding himself hobbled, but the sudden realization that so many others were in the same situation that solidified his desire to find a prosthetic that could work in aquatic conditions. As he explained in “The Return”, the short movie (above) made by ad agency JWT:
“I didn’t even know what a prosthetic leg looked like back then. I can’t tell you how many other amputees, around the country, around the world, don’t even go swimming because they don’t have anything. They don’t want to use their regular foot, or their regular prosthetic, or they have nothing to support them.”
What Lasko experienced when he wore his original prosthetic in the water was that it acted as an impediment, something that was simply a weight on the end his thigh. But creating a prosthetic for swimming is more than just a matter of putting a fin on the end of a prosthetic leg; there’s the getting to the water and getting out to consider, as well as the ways in which the prosthetic balances its efforts with the other natural foot and leg of its user. The limb created needed to be seamlessly amphibious and feel as natural as possible.
To get to this desired end goal required months of research, development, testing, and production, which may seem like a long time, but when you compare that to the amount of time this process would have taken before digital modeling and rapid prototyping, it was the blink of an eye. In the end, all of the planning in the world is no substitute for the feedback of experience, so Lasko was involved in testing and feedback from the very beginning. Each test provided new information to the developers, who were able to make changes and address real world issues with the prosthetic with incredible speed thanks to 3D printing. All of this lies well within the corporate philosophy of Northwell, summed up best by its CEO Michael Dowling:
“You’ve got to innovate. And not be thrown off by the fact you might hit a challenge you can’t overcome. You just go over it, under it, or around it.”
The final prosthetic was 3D printed with carbon fiber enhanced nylon, a material that allows the prosthetic to have both the strength and the flexibility needed to perform up to par. A 3D printer from Markforged is visible in the video above; this company is well known for 3D printing with strong materials including carbon fiber. The fin itself rests above the prosthetic foot rather than acting as a substitute for it. Holes lining the sides of the shin work to balance natural drag and propulsion in the water, to help counter the movement created by the prosthetic with that generated by the other leg.
The next step is to take the development of this prosthetic from something that is a one-off creation into a method for creating amphibious prosthetics for anyone. Northwell Ventures expects to make the limb commercially available in about six months and while not all nearly two million people in the US who have lost a leg will immediately want to run out and get one, there is enough possibility for demand to make this project more than just a special case. Estimated to have a cost of between $2,000 and $5,000, it is unfortunate that it most likely won’t be something that will be covered by insurance, even though pursuing an active lifestyle has been consistently demonstrated to be one of the best things that an amputee can do.
Lasko was lucky in that he received his leg for free in return for participating in the testing and development. It will now be added to the six other specialized legs he has in his closet at home, for activities such as sprinting, bike riding, and walking among others.
In the meantime, Lasko and his family have one less thing to worry about as they go about their lives, and in the pantheon of parenthood, that’s one of the greatest gifts that can be received. Discuss in the 3D Printed Prosthetic forum at 3DPB.com.[Sources: Innovateli, The Stable]