Interview with Prosthetist and Orthotist Brent Wright of LifeEnabled on 3D Printing Prosthetics

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Amidst the hubble and bubble of optimism, money and growth, there are also people doing good things with 3D printing. Open source prosthetics are one of the most exciting areas of 3D printing. Here is an area where widely available desktop printers and industrial systems can be used to make patient-specific prostheses, braces, and medical assistive devices. These can also be made on location and very cost-effectively. 3D printing has the potential to completely transform the production and distribution of these devices. The idea is great but what is the reality like in the field? In order for that to happen a few talented individuals will have to be the tip of the spear and actually implement these technologies. One person who is pushing inexpensive 3D printed prosthetics is the prosthetist and orthotist Brent Wright. He is bringing the industry knowledge and training that he has to 3D printing and implement it in technology and capital deprived areas worldwide. Brent founded LifeEnabled a nonprofit that provides prosthetics to people worldwide. Brent also works for EastPoint Prosthetics and Orthotics where he honed his craft. Brent and LifeEnabled are an inspiration and you should help them push the envelope for helping.
What is LifeNabled?
“LifeNabled is a non-profit organization that specializes in creating high quality, low cost, durable, and new prostheses for the developing world.  We believe that everyone missing a limb deserves to have mobility and access of a prosthesis.”
Why should I work with you?
“If you love people and like to see individuals that otherwise would not be able to walk get a prosthesis there is a place for you supporting LifeNabled.”
What kind of companies are you looking to partner with?
“We take our partnerships very seriously and they come from a diverse background.  It truly takes all types of people and companies to make LifeNabled successful.   For example we have a partner that does baseball training and loves what we do and gives LifeNabled exposure to their clients.  We have a company that has convenience stores that provide exposure at the stores as well as access to business consulting via the CEO.  We have another company that works with donors if they want to donate stock to us. None of these companies have experience in prosthetics but they believe in our mission.”
What does a prosthetist do?
“I always like to break down prosthetics and orthotics in a word picture.  Most people have seen the classic movie Forest Gump.  Forest Gump wore orthoses and Captain Dan wore prosthetics.
“An orthotist works with someone with all their extremities to provide correction or support to specific part of the body.
“A prosthetist works with a person that is missing a part of their body.”
When did you start using 3D printing and why is it so relevant for you??
“I started printing in 2016. 3D printing allows me to reach people in the developing world with a prosthesis without the need to build a large and expensive fabrication facility.”
What is holding 3D printing back in your area?
“Currently, it is materials.  Many of the materials are just not strong enough compared to traditional fabrication and when you make them strong enough they are quite heavy.  I see a lot of promise though with filament manufacturers jumping into extruding PolyPropylene and other innovative new materials.”
What 3D printers do you use?
“Depends on the application.  I have a Raise 3D printer that is highly modified so I can print lots of materials.  I use Filament Innovations machines to print large nozzle and large volume objects.  I use a Lulzbot Taz 6 and Mini’s for detail parts with more resolution.  Lastly, I use my Blackbelt machine for interesting shaped prostheses that traditionally would require a lot of support.”
What materials do you use?
“I use a little bit of everything but have settled on CF PETG and PETG for most applications. I see a lot of promise for the Polypropylene though.”
How could 3D printing materials be improved for you?
“I really think it is a combination of materials and machine.  The closer we get in strength to traditional lamination the better off we are.  A lot more work needs to be completed on how the environment plays a roll in getting a good print.”
What do you think of FDM vis a vis MFJ and SLS?
“I love MJF I am not familiar with SLS but know that the cooling time is an issue with both however MJF allows you to cool parts in another chamber.  The parts are amazing and strong and the resolution is incredible.  The parts are definitely more expensive but the price is coming down.  FDM is still the most cost effective way to print but in my opinion, the reports generated on the MJF machines about how the printer performed and the consistency makes the most sense when we decide to make an end use product.”
Do you think that 3D printing will fundamentally change your field?
“Fundamentals are fundamentals, I think prosthetists are the best in the world creating one of cost effective prototypes.  The rules for comfort and alignment do not change but materials and fabrication styles change. I am looking forward to getting soft materials and hard materials in the same prosthesis. I am looking forward to mass customization that is cost effective.”
Will patient specific braces and orthoses be the norm?
“On upper extremity orthoses, it will be the norm.  Lower extremity orthoses will become more mainstream as we gather data on durability.”
How cost effective is using 3D printing compared to traditional methods?
“For prosthetics, the economics almost work compared to traditional fabrication.  On the orthotic side, it is less work to print the items however the costs are higher when compared to the price we get paid for a given device.  I foresee those costs getting better over time though.”
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