It’s not hard to understand the impact that 3D printing is having on business and crafting. It’s an amazing method for creating and has solved countless problems associated with traditional manufacturing methods, ranging from wasted material to the lag time for prototyping. But 3D printing isn’t just good for business or craft, it’s also making a difference in the quality of people’s lives. From surgical guides to implants to prosthetics, 3D printing is in the news time and time again for the multitude of ways that it improves people’s, and animals‘, joy in living.
For paralympian Mike Schultz, that joy comes from the world of winter sports. However, there was a time when it seemed that he might not be able to continue to participate in his cold weather competitions. In 2008, while competing in a snocross race in Michigan, he was thrown from his snowmobile and the impact shattered his knee. The difficult decision to amputate his left leg, just above the knee, had to made after his injuries began to cause organ failure. After months of intensive therapies and relearning to walk using a prosthetic, Mike became restless and began to look for ways that he could get back into the saddle. As he explained in an interview with engadget:
Rather than having a prosthetic that responded to a need to walk or run, where the leg needs to be able to swing back and forth with each step taken, the leg that Schultz needed had to mimic a squatting motion. As nothing like this was available on the market, the only solution seemed to be for Schultz to design his own. Drawing on his experience with winter sports, years of tinkering, and a ninth grade drafting class, he set to work in his garage to create what he needed. He quickly realized that what he was working on developing would help others as well, even if it wasn’t all smooth sailing:
“I spent a total of 13 days in the hospital and was able to get back home on Christmas Eve to a whole new world of challenges. Later that spring, after learning how to walk on my everyday prosthetic leg, I realized pretty quickly that I need a plan B to get back into sports and the fun activities that I wanted to do…I needed a knee system that would have some spring resistance in it to help keep extended while I’m standing up, then allow it to absorb the impact from the rough terrain.”
“One of my goals was to make this equipment versatile for as many sports as possible, and I knew that snowboarding and skiing were very popular as adaptive sports. So, in order for me to develop this equipment, I needed to learn how to snowboard myself. To put it in simple form, I wrecked a lot. But I started figuring it out and realized, ‘Man, this is a lot of fun.'”
After working to create the right prosthetic, he founded a company, Bioadapt, to fabricate it and the knee, called the Moto Knee, which will be utilized by him and his teammates when they compete at the winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. Not content to stop there, Schultz is continuing to develop other prosthetics to help athletes compete, without crossing the line set by the International Paralympics Committee that prohibits the use of “equipment that results in sport performance not primarily being generated by the athlete’s own physical prowess.”
The quality of prosthetics has traveled in leaps and bounds in the last decade as 3D printing has both allowed for faster prototyping and for the creation of limited run or custom pieces. In addition, advances in the technology required to send instructions through electric impulses to the prosthetics has resulted in wider ranges of movement and greater responsiveness than ever before. While advanced prosthetics are still fairly expensive, these types of specialized inventions for high performance athletes pave the way for the development of lower cost alternatives for the general public, meaning that while now snowboarding prosthetics might be primarily for the sport’s elites, as a result of continued development, they will likely be on offer for a broader spectrum of individuals in the years to come. As Schultz enthused:
“At this time in the manufacturing industry, the sky is the limit with design, and prototyping options with 3D printing, and all this new CAD technology. I’m working on three different kinds of modifications to some different equipment that I’m working on. I can’t really tell [you] what they are, but I will be utilizing some of the latest 3D printing technology. It’s a great time to be in the development industry for sure.”
There’s no doubt that Schultz is both an amazing athlete and an inspired maker; his work not only allows him to do what he loves but paves the way for others to do so as well, meaning he’ll be able to continue giving back to the community long after he’s done competing at this level if, indeed, he ever is.
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