Additive Manufacturing Strategies

Essentium Teams up with Leading Company for 3D Printed Prosthetics and Orthotics

ST Medical Devices

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Known for its high-strength materials and a unique take on FDM/FFF technology, Essentium, Inc. has already established itself in the prosthetics market. Now, the Texas-based start-up is taking a step further through an exclusive partnership with Vorum, an established CAD/CAM company in the orthotics and prosthetics industry.

Key to understanding Essentium’s role in the space is knowing about its FlashFuse extrusion technology. FlashFuse is an electric welding technique that applies electromagnetic energy to plastic filament as it is being printed, activating the properties of nanoparticles coating Essentium’s specialty filament to bond together. The process is meant to resolve the anisotropic strength associated with the Z-axis of FDM parts. This means, unlike traditional FDM parts, which are weak between printed layers, those made using FlashFuse should exhibit roughly equal strength all directions.

Why this is important in the manufacturing of prosthetics, specifically lower limb prosthetics, is that these are load-bearing objects and can’t crack between layers if they’re meant to keep their users safe. This has been a significant issue with 3D-printed prosthetics in general. Even e-NABLE hands, which captured the media’s adoration in the past, are only functional up to a point. If Essentium’s FlashFuse technology really does deliver on its promises, the start-up could realize so much of the hype generated around 3D-printed prosthetics.

A 3D printed prosthetic limb. Image courtesy of Essentium.

So far, Essentium has created a 3D printed prosthetic socket that is said to meet the strength and safety demands of the application. This partnership with Vorum will take Essentium a step further into the prosthetics space. Vorum provides digital solutions for the orthotics and prosthetics market, offering 3D scanners to scan a patient’s body, CanFit CAD software to model the device and milling machines to carve the device. The company has established what it calls a SurePath to Success program, which is meant to transition traditional orthotics and prosthetics practitioners to these new digital technologies.

Vorum will now have an additional technology to offer its clients: Essentium’s High-Speed Extrusion (HSE) platform, featuring FlashFuse. The first HSE system yet developed is the HSE 180 S 3D printer, which the company claims can 3D print 10 times faster than other extrusion printers at a rate of one meter per second. The machine also has a large 740 x 510 x 650mm build envelope, the ability to reach 600°C extrusion temperatures, a 110°C chamber and a 200°C build platform. All of this combined suggests that the HSE 180S is a platform capable of 3D printing large parts from high-performance materials, including PEEK, PEKK and ULTEM. Using this technology, Vorum and Essenitum believe that they will be able to mass customize orthotics and prosthetics.

If successful, the two partners could reduce the cost of prosthetics and orthotics, while increasing their utility and comfort via patient personalization. When e-NABLE was making headlines, the world was particularly wowed by how low-cost those prosthetics could be. In the case of this partnership, however, a $75,000 printer and an existing digitization workflow, which might make one wonder how much lower they will drop the cost of existing devices.

Typically, it’s important to be wary of any start-up that promises game-changing technology. Though this author still maintains some level of skepticism in this case, Essentium has received significant industry endorsement in the form of a $22 million investment from the world’s largest chemical company, BASF, and the 3D printing sector’s most established service provider and software developer, Materialise. That should garner some confidence for any skeptics in the crowd.

Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

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