3D printing: Present Challenges, & Future Research By: Sarah Ogden, Bioengineering student at the University of California, Berkeley
Advancements in 3D printing have garnered a lot of excitement in recent years about its potential to revolutionize industries with lots of customization or prototyping. While the orthotics industry is highly customized, there are several barriers that have limited the technology from being adopted by the industry. One of the biggest challenges was trying to blend the tactile and artistic nature of orthotics manufacturing with the quantitative nature 3D technologies. Another major hurdle that 3D printing faces in the orthopaedic space is that it is significantly harder to make minor fit adjustments to printed devices than it is to tweak ones traditional manufactured.
My colleague Andre and I realized that a major problem orthotists have with 3D printing is the lack of physical feedback when working on a screen while also having to be more accurate with their adjustments. In light of this discovery, we decided to look into the possibility of printing an ankle-foot orthotic quickly and with minimal material that could be used to check the fit of the device. If a test-print worked well this could not only help save time and material when an orthotist was adjusting to the new technology, but could also reduce the time currently spent remaking devices where the rectifications aren’t corrective enough for patients that are trickier to cast.
We set out to determine if we could find a setting on the 3D printer where an ankle-foot orthosis could be printed in a few hours but still be strong enough to provide useful feedback about how the device fits and if the rectifications made were sufficient. After successfully discovering functional test-print settings, we focused on determining how accurate the 3D process is. We hoped to find that dimensions and features were well preserved when moving between the physical and 3D spaces. Determining accuracy ended up being more difficult than we anticipated for several reasons. There is virtually no numerical data on foot orthotics, likely because foot and leg are challenging shapes to measure. This meant that we also needed to create methods for obtaining measurements that we could compare in both the physical and digital space.
While the measurement methods still need refinement to further reduce human error and a larger sample size is needed to make any definitive conclusions, our results indicated that the dimensions seem to be preserved well through the entire process of scanning, rectifying, and printing. This was promising news both for the viability of a test-print as well as the future possibility to eventually shift to 3D printing when manufacturing orthotics. In the process of evaluating the accuracy it became apparent that optimizing and streamlining the scanning and digital processing will be critical before 3D technology could be potentially adopted widely by the orthotics industry. In particular, the process of scanning needs to be refined to limit unwanted distortions from tiny movements in the leg and the digital rectification software needs to make it easier to gage the extent of alterations made as it currently is hard to visually detect subtle changes.
Our work this summer revealed that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before it is feasible to use 3D printing in the orthotics industry, but we are optimistic about the potential it has to drastically improve the efficiency of device manufacturing.