Each year, thousands of people lose motor and limb function after loss of a limb. Doctors actually prescribe orthotics or prostheses and then specialists like Tyler Dunham and Tyler Manee enter the process. Crafting orthotics and prosthetics is a very specialized field.
Orthotists design, make, and fit braces like supports — one good example of what they make would be corrective shoes. Prosthetists create, make, and fit artifical limbs and orthopedic devices. Prosthetics and orthotics restore mobility and stability to the body, and obviously, that’s a priceless gift, no matter the process.
I think one of the most interesting statements orthotics and prosthetics clinicians Tyler Dunham and Tyler Manee make is that “3D printing is not something we learned in school.” While they both have excellent and highly respectable degrees, and are able to perform the tasks they were trained to do, they took the initiative to go out and learn challenging new skills involving what could be considered intimidating new design and technology. They did not have to learn something different and innovative — their patients would never have known the difference, for now. But Dunham and Manee, with a practice based in Frederick, Maryland, took the initiative to spend two years exploring and mastering the technology of 3D printing.
I think a key message in their statement regarding traditional training should be a clue to all educational institutions that want to remain on the cutting edge — and produce graduates with the skills progressive employers are seeking — to begin education in 3D printing.
Few can do what Dunham and Manee can, and their knowledge and expertise is highly valued. Their vision to take their craft to the next level is right on target, and they are not alone in their aspirations. We’ve reported on numerous stories regarding the benefits of 3D printing and prosthetics, ranging from projects to make the process easier for children to companies and large organizations like e-NABLE that are focused on 3D printing specific prosthetic limbs for those in need. The number of people becoming involved in trying to see 3D printed prosthetics go mainstream is slowly growing.
This however, is the first time I’ve reported on an actual orthotists and prosthetists practice looking to do the simple, utilitarian, and logical: set up 3D printing of orthotics and prosthetics for the patients they see. Dunham and Manee, observing the good that is being performed around the world with 3D printing and prosthetics, want to continue in the same vein for their patients, and intend to garner attention for the 3D printing process along the way. They point out that the largest percentage of amputees are lower-body amputees, and they want to focus their time on producing more devices for that group of individuals in need.
Both graduates with Master’s degrees in their fields from Georgia Tech, they were trained in the traditional methods for making orthotics and prostheses. For creating artificial limbs and braces, they learned to take a cast of the patient’s leg or arm area, for example, and then fill the cast with a plaster mold. After that, they would basically whittle it into the appropriate size and shape for the specific patient. Through heating plastic and fitting it to the mold, they would add strength and durability to the piece, as well as refining it again to the proper shape and size. An excess of time is spent waiting for the plaster to set, waiting for the plastic to heat, and waiting for it to cool. There is a lot of material required, and a lot of wasted material that goes into the trash.
Dunham and Manee are aware that with 3D printing all the waste from the artificial limbs and brace material would be eliminated and that efficiency would be enormously increased, as well eliminating the need for as much workshop space. Less energy is used, and the pieces are less expensive to produce. The level of precision is enormously increased with 3D modeling also, as they are able to refine designs digitally with ease and and considerably more speed.
The duo has now made over 50 orthotics and prosthetic samples on a 3D printer borrowed from a generous friend. Dunham and Manee have graduated from the learning and experimentation phase and are confident that they are ready to begin producing the orthotics and prosthetics for their patients. They have files ready to go for 3D printing and they have patients in need who will be able to reap great reward from 3D printed devices.
Their motivation now, in launching their Kickstarter campaign, is to raise funds simply to buy a new 3D printer. They want 3D printing in their field to become the norm, not the exception — and they are right on target with their wishes — as 3D printed prosthetics are absolutely possible — and they know it. Funds from the modest Kickstarter campaign, with a goal of $9K to be reached by February 14th, 2015, will be used simply to purchase a 3D printer for their practice.
Everyone who makes a pledge will be gifted with a photo of the first 3D printed prosthesis they produce. Other rewards include a keychain, and for those in the upper echelon of pledging, a 3D printed face mask.
“Once we have this 3D printer, we can start the revolution,” state Dunham and Manee.
All that is holding the team back currently is the need for access to a 3D printer with a larger build volume. For their work, they require a build plate of 12″ x 12″ x 18″.
Dunham and Manee are in a profession that does have the potential to make great use of the 3D printing platform as it offers and delivers a realistic, proven way to provide custom products more quickly, affordably, and with quality. The process is easier on patients, modifications are made more easily, and the technology keeps progressing rapidly. 3D printing has offered great promise to the world of helping amputees, including, with robotics, to help some paraplegics walk again. This is yet another sector of the medical field that is in the process of transformation due to innovation, and motivation by medical professionals who are curious, creative, and who care.
What do you think of the role 3D printing is playing in orthotics and prosthetics? Do you know anyone who could benefit from a 3D printed prosthetic? Tell us about it in the 3D Printing Prosthetic and Orthotics forum over at 3DPB.com.
Both Tyler Dunham and Tyler Manee hold masters of science degrees in orthotics and prosthetics from Georgia Tech. They are both practicing, board-certified prosthetists and orthotists.