Tenacity and Empathy: Unlimited Tomorrow and Stratasys Discuss 3D Printing, Prosthetics, Partnership


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Easton LaChappelle presents the problems inherent in prosthetics

This year at SOLIDWORKS World, the focus wasn’t only on the feats of design and engineering made possible through use of SOLIDWORKS and advanced manufacturing techniques including 3D printing — it was on the people who create them, the people who use them; the focus was on people. From rethinking a process to heartwarming end-use applications, SWW18 was filled with announcements, meetings, and a frankly inspirational cross-section of humanity. One of the partnerships announced during the event, far from being lost as a blip on the radar of a busy conference filled with newly introduced partnerships, caught the attention and the hearts of attendees, and expands on a project we’ve now been following for years.

Stratasys and Dassault Systèmes will be the dedicated 3D printing technology and CAD/CAE suppliers for Unlimited Tomorrow, an advanced manufacturing business founded by youthful and dedicated entrepreneur Easton LaChappelle. LaChappelle, for his part, has been taking things apart to see how they work since he can remember, and creating prosthetic hands since he was 14 years old. By his late teens, he had developed a technique to create advanced prosthetics, having turned to 3D printing at 16, and in 2014 founded Unlimited Tomorrow at age 18 to bring his creations to the world.

Unlimited Tomorrow gaining traction since 2014

Last year, LaChappelle’s work in creating a hand for a young girl named Momo was featured in a Microsoft documentary series. The story caught the attention of SOLIDWORKS Product Portfolio Manager Mark Rushton, who told me at SWW that he realized LaChappelle was a SOLIDWORKS user and quickly looked him up to get in touch.

“I asked how to help,” Rushton explained. “I saw he was using a Stratasys 3D printer and got in touch with the company.”

I spoke with LaChappelle, as well as Stratasys Director of Healthcare Solutions Michael Gaisford, and Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility Arita Mattsoff, to hear more about the formal collaboration they have formed.

“It was a pretty natural collaboration,” LaChappelle told me. “I’ve been involved with Stratasys a number of years, and have been up to their Minnesota headquarters a number of times. I was initially working with FDM technologies, but as my designs advanced and their technologies got better and better, it became a natural fit with PolyJet technologies. Looking at the industry, they have one of the best machines that can print in full color for end use. A lot of aspects are offered, including R&D with respect to making it more human-like, mimicking anatomy, really building up in a way that is like layers of a skin. Now, we have fingernails. We’re increasing that side, increasing functionality. Production and scalability are a factor as well; going into this, we want to create a solution — not only for Momo, but more. That really separates us on the prosthetics side — the number one thought is how can we scale this around the prosthetics world? We want to create a business and a solution to support that.”

While the story Microsoft featured, with nine-year-old Momo and her successful 3D printed arm, is heartwarming indeed and has caught a lot of attention, LaChappelle isn’t resting on any laurels — the vision is individual, on creating custom solutions for the people who truly need them, but must be scalable. Each amputee, each person in need of a prosthetic, should have access, and LaChappelle is passionate about driving that message home and getting the word out.

Easton presenting Momo with hand [Image via Belief Agency]

To start, Unlimited Tomorrow has a MicroVentures funding campaign going on that has already raised close to $350,000 as LaChappelle works to launch scale accessibility, kicking off with a pilot of 100 arms created for 100 individuals in need. I asked how he would be finding these 100 people, and it turns out that hasn’t been a problem at all.

“An amazing byproduct of the Microsoft documentary was that within two weeks, it had twelve million views online, and there was this incredible amount of outreach around the world. I’ve had literally thousands of emails from amputees, from all walks of life, looking for this technology,” he told me.

“We’re starting to formulate our website to collect amputees’ information, to walk them through their eligibility for prosthetics and their history with them, and deciding if they’re a candidate for this 100 test group. The purpose of the 100 is to test the technology, the creation model behind it, and ensure that the full product launch is scalable and intuitive. For a family member, is it intuitive to scan them? And we’ve been seeing great results. As we’re testing this product, especially with kids, we want to anticipate as much as possible, and we will learn much more and collect data once these are in the field. Finding people hasn’t been a problem. A lot is also through partnerships — we’re talking with the VA and other organizations out there, including a lot of nonprofits in Haiti, and overseas — there’s a lot of people over there we can partner with.”

Once an individual is in contact and working with Unlimited Tomorrow, the process is fairly streamlined thanks to the 3D scanning and 3D printing involved. The timing, LaChappelle told me, is “literally a few days,” as same-day deployment of a test socket is possible once Unlimited Tomorrow receives the individual 3D scan — “which is unheard-of,” he underscored. That fast turnaround is a testament to the agility in manufacturing allowed for with advanced technologies and a driven team. Unlimited Tomorrow is “producing as fast as possible,” and bringing quality and individual levels of care and attention to each amputee. Several, he told me, have been working with the team for a few months now, and Unlimited Tomorrow is finalizing the 100.

The Unlimited Tomorrow process

In addition ot the speed of manufacturing, communication allows for an expedited process. Working with so many overseas entities and individuals, Skype is key to the team’s toolbox for contact and validation. Many of these conversations are working with amputees who have experience with prosthetics; around 80% of those working now with Unlimited Tomorrow have used prosthetics in the past, LaChappelle explained, so understand their needs and wants in a new arm. The technologies used also bring costs down significantly — from about $80,000 for a comparable hand to $5,000 with Unlimited Tomorrow.

Because many of the amputees are children, I asked as well how Unlimited Tomorrow handles kids’ growth as they outgrow initial designs.

“We created this with growing in mind, so it’s a modular system: we take the electronics from the existing device and put it in a new shell, which saves a lot of cost. We’re looking at about $2,500 for an upgrade. It could be a new socket or a new device for an upgrade. There’s a chance it would need new electronics, which would snap into place. It all leaves a lot of room for upgrades and enhancements,” he explained of the system.

The team at Unlimited Tomorrow has the drive and know-how to create the advanced prosthetics — but what about the new partnership?

“This program is driven by Unlimited Tomorrow, by Easton — it’s their leadership,” Gaisford told me.

“We’re able to take the work they’ve done and provide expertise to take it from one-off patients now being scaled for mass production. Stratasys Direct Manufacturing does this day in, day out, manufacturing devices using additive technology. Our engineers optimize for performance, and there are perhaps tweaks, and have the production side, all to reach the audacious goals that Unlimited Tomorrow has.”

These audacious goals are underscored by the ambition of spreading helpful devices to as broad a base of those in need as possible, and Gaisford drove home Stratasys’ complete support for these ambitions.

“There are other ways we can investigate furthering the technology. Whether that’s taking our Voxel Print technology and making arms more realistic in appearance, we’re really looking at how can we incorporate our color management and expertise to bear. There’s a lot of ways we can collaborate on this,” he said, tying in the company’s advanced software, introduced at the recent formnext.

The aesthetics possible with Stratasys’ suite of 3D printers and voxel-level design software allow for not just custom, but completely personalized prosthetics. A device like this is an incredibly personal creation, which becomes literally a part of someone’s life — so it’s important that a person be able to have that connection. Compliance can be a problem with any medical device or treatment, and for prosthetics, adoption rates can decrease when someone finds that they hate their device, with some statistics indicating that about half of all those who have prosthetics choose to not wear them regularly.

“Our tagline is that we are creating prosthetics that are as tenacious as the people who wear them,” LaChappelle said.

“Like with Momo — we asked if there was anything she could have aesthetically on her arm what it would be. She had the idea of a Chinese dragon wrapping around the arm. You could choose — human-like, if you’re going to school and want to fit in, or have a personalized cover, whatever you like. We’re making it as personal as possible.”

Michael Gaisford holds a realistic 3D printed prosthetic hand

A 3D printed prosthetic offers the capability to have the arm appear as natural or as splashy as a person might want, and between the dedication from Unlimited Tomorrow and the technology of its partners, this opens up a world of possibilities in design.

“This takes a child from a disadvantaged person to be a hero, and have a story around the prosthetics,” Mattsoff pointed out.

“Instead of being at a disadvantage, it becomes a discussion point around the kids — they become the hero. It changes the child’s experience.”

In the past, many kids have been discouraged about the prospect of using prosthetics, limiting their usefulness as they might not help. Now, LaChappelle said, they can be excited about their personalized devices and look forward to using them, to wearing them, to showing them off: “An amputee would think of it as an extension of themselves.”

All of the designs are created using SOLIDWORKS.

“What separates Unlimited Tomorrow from any other prosthetics company out there is scalability, and what enables us to do that is the automation from raw 3D scan to a customized, ready-to-print device automatically. With the one-offs, it would take months to design each device for each amputee,” LaChappelle said. “We deploy 3D scanners and extract measurements from that — we get finger length, width, and circumference, and more — and that gets input into a SOLIDWORKS model that makes it unique and customized.”

Easton LaChappelle [Image: Unlimited Tomorrow]

As we wrapped up our discussion of what makes Unlimited Tomorrow stand out as a real-world solution for amputees around the world, and what makes the company such a good fit for partnering with both SOLIDWORKS and Stratasys, I asked LaChappelle, Martsoff, and Gaisford what they wanted to ensure people understand about the collaboration and its future.

From the perspective of Unlimited Tomorrow, one of the biggest messages here, and in scaling the availability, lies on the business end.

“Touching on the partnership and overall message of Unlimited Tomorrow, this new form of raising funds [with MicroVentures] and financing with equity crowdfunding is critical,” LaChappelle said.

“It lets investors put in $100 to $100,000 or more, and really opens it up for people — to help, to be a part of the future of this as well. It’s already validated and shown this really amazing model. We’re just shy of $350,000 in two weeks, and it’s this new, exciting way to raise money, an amazing way to include partners and start moving this new form of business forward instead of a conventional medical company that you think about.”

For Stratasys, some of the takeaways lie in the realities — not just of this offering being a real-world solution, but also the realism with which these hands can be made.

“Embedded within the customization is the realism,” Gaisford said. “The thing that really strikes me when I look at Easton’s designs and devices he’s been able to create — you have to do a double-take when you see it, it’s so seamless and organic. That, I think, is what’s going ot make this especially well-received among the target population. Yes, some will want an Iron Man hand, but mostly kids want to fit in. Having that option, the ability to do color matching and organic design, having smooth lines and curves instead of a bunch of FDM ridges, will really take the acceptance of these devices up. Adoption statistics are depressing. That realism, to me, with scale and customization, is key — and, of course, it has to be functional. $5,000 sounds expensive, but when you compare it to the other ones out there, it will improve the access so many times over.”

[Image: Stratasys]

From a corporate responsibility perspective, Mattsoff pointed out that as a provider of advanced technologies, it falls upon Stratasys to do all they can as a leading company to bring that technology to help.

“3D printing technology is the ideal technology to improve the quality of life for people. Stratasys sees it as a responsibility of the company to bring this technology, these things we make, to the community,” she told me.

“The DNA of our technology is to imporve the quality of life. This is what you will see Stratasys do more and more. Generally, company foundations are built on funds. We can take technology and use it to really make better for the the community. Unlimited Tomorrow is an inspiring collaboration. We do this in education as well, donating to schools in risk areas so children in these areas can learn techniques. Especially in risk areas, acquiring capabilities that were not previously possible is so important. Our technology can have a significant impact.”

That ethos is a large part of why LaChappelle found Stratasys such a compelling partner, he noted.

“We’re laying the groundwork for other devices out there. There are aspects of the medical industry where it’s all about money; there’s a dollar sign to independence,” LaChappelle concluded.

“For me, having a 3D printer when I was young completely changed my mindset and my thought process of what was possible. Giving that to children today will change the future.”

Unlimited Tomorrow, through its partnership with Stratasys and Dassault Systèmes, is working to bring 100 prosthetics into use this year, and will be in touch with amputees around the world as this project advances. You can learn more about Unlimited Tomorrow here and find the MicroVentures campaign here.

Discuss 3D printed prosthetics and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Photos unless otherwise credited: Sarah Goehrke]



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