New 3-D printing process could improve prosthetic fit, decrease wait times

Researchers at the University of Michigan College of Engineering have developed a new way to design and fabricate custom prosthetics and orthotics using a 3-D printer, according to a press release. The design could provide quickly manufactured, well-fitted devices.

“Eventually, we envision that a patient could come in, in the morning, for an optical scan, and the clinician could design a high-quality orthosis quickly using the cloud-based software,” Albert Shih, PhD, MS, professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, said in the release. “By that afternoon, they could have a 3-D printed device that is ready for final evaluation and use.”

The fabrication technique begins with a 3-D optical scan of the patient. A prosthetist or orthotist uploads the data to a cloud-based server at a design center, which uses specially developed software to create the device. The software sends a set of electronic instructions to the prosthetist or orthotist, and an on-site 3-D printer fabricates the device within a few hours.

According to the release, devices fabricated this way are lighter than traditional devices due to the use of a “sparse structure” technique which produces partially hollow devices without sacrificing strength. In addition, the release noted, the computer-based models allow for more consistent fabrication. It could also provide practitioners with a reliable record of a patient’s limb shape and condition.

The system is in place at the University of Michigan Orthotics and Prosthetics Center, the release noted. The researchers plan to make the software freely available and allow other providers to introduce similar systems.


Disclosure: The researchers report funding from the National Science Foundation and America Makes, software production by Altair and Standard Cyborg, and a 3-D printer provided by Stratasys.

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