The Future of 3D Printing: Exoskeletons and Limbs

???????????????????????3-D printing is leading to a revolution in manufacturing, and the list of applications grows with each passing day. But more important is the way it is coming together with other fields of research to make breakthroughs  more affordable and accessible. Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of robotics and medicine, where printing techniques are producing a new generation of bionic and mind-controlled prosthetics.

For example, 3D Systems (a an additive manufacturing company) and EksoBionics (a company specializing in bionic prosthetic devices) recently partnered to produce the new “bespoke” exoskeleton that will restore ambulatory ability to paraplegics. The prototype was custom made for a woman named Amanda Boxtel, who was paralyzed in 1992 from a tragic skiing accident.

3d_amanda2Designers from 3D Systems began by scanning her body, digitizing the contours of her spine, thighs, and shins; a process that helped them mold the robotic suit to her needs and specifications. They then combined the suit with a set of mechanical actuators and controls made by EksoBionics. The result, said 3D Systems, is the first-ever “bespoke” exoskeleton.

Intrinsic to the partnership between 3D Systems and EksoBionics was the common goal of finding a way to fit the exoskeleton comfortably to Boxtel’s body. One of the greatest challenges with exosuits and prosthetic devices is finding ways to avoid the hard parts bumping into “bony prominences,” such as the knobs on the wrists and ankles. These areas as not only sensitive, but prolonged exposure to hard surfaces can lead to a slew of health problems, given time.

3d-printed-ekso-suit-frontAs Scott Summit, the senior director for functional design at 3D Systems, explained it,:

[Such body parts] don’t want a hard surface touching them. We had to be very specific with the design so we never had 3D-printed parts bumping into bony prominences, which can lead to abrasions [and bruising].

One problem that the designers faced in this case was that a paralyzed person like Boxtel often can’t know that bruising is happening because they can’t feel it. This is dangerous because undetected bruises or abrasions can become infected. In addition, because 3D-printing allows the creation of very fine details, Boxtel’s suit was designed to allow her skin to breathe, meaning she can walk around without sweating too much.

3d_amandaThe process of creating the 3D-printed robotic suit lasted about three months, starting when Summit and 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichenthal met Boxtel during a visit to EksoBionics. Boxtel is one of ten EksoBionics “test pilots”, and the exoskeleton was already designed to attach to the body very loosely with Velcro straps, with an adjustable fit. But it wasn’t yet tailored to fit her alone.

That’s where 3D Systems came into play, by using a special 3D scanning system to create the custom underlying geometry that would be used to make the parts that attach to the exoskeleton. As Boxtel put it:

When the robot becomes the enabling device to take every step for the rest of your life. the connection between the body and the robot is everything. So our goal is to enhance the quality of that connection so the robot becomes more symbiotic.

3D_DudleyAnd human beings aren’t the only ones who are able to take advantage of this marriage between 3-D printing and biomedicine. Not surprisingly, animals are reaping the benefits of all the latest technological breakthroughs in these fields as well, as evidenced by the little duck named Dudley from the K911 animal rescue service in Sicamous, Canada.

Not too long ago, Dudley lost a leg when a chicken in the same pen mauled him. But thanks to a 3-D printed leg design, especially made for him, he can now walk again. It was created by Terence Loring of 3 Pillar Designs, a company that specializes in 3D-printing architectural prototypes. After hearing of Dudley’s plight through a friend, he decided to see what he could do to help.

3D_buttercupfootUnlike a previous printed limb, the printed foot that was fashioned for Buttercup the Duck, Loring sought to create an entire limb that could move. The first limb he designed had a jointed construction, and was fully 3D-printed in plastic. Unfortunately, the leg broke the moment Dudley pit it on, forcing Loring to go back to the drawing board for a one-piece printed from softer plastic.

The subsequent leg he created had no joints and could bend on its own. And when Dudley put it on, he started walking straight away and without hesitation. Issues remain to be solved, like how to prevent friction sores – a problem that Mike Garey (who designed Buttercup’s new foot) solved with a silicone sock and prosthetic gel liner.

3D_Dudley2Nevertheless, Dudley is nothing if not as happy as a duck in a pond, and it seems very likely that any remaining issues will be ironed out in time. In fact, one can expect that veterinary medicine will fully benefit from the wide range of 3D printed prosthetic devices and even bionic limbs as advancement and research continues to produce new and exciting possibilities.

And in the meantime, enjoy the following videos which show both Amanda Boxtel and Dudley the duck enjoying their new devices and the ways in which they help bring mobility back to their worlds:

 

Amanda Boxtel taking her first steps in 22 years:

 


Dudley the duck walking again:


Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), (3), 3dsystems.com, 3pillardesigns.com

The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Candy

chefjet_candyRemember the Easy Bake Oven, that little toy appliance that came equipped with an especially hot light-bulb and allowed kids to bake (a limited array of) edible goods? Well, it just may be that 3-D food printers will give the children of tomorrow that same ability, except with a much wider array of options; not to mention little risk of burning themselves.

Already, pizza, pancakes, and desserts are all options for food printers, and even Google’s cafeteria has a 3-D printer for pasta. And at this years Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014), 3D Systems unveiled two of their latest designs – the ChefJet and the ChefJet Pro – showcasing printers that use sugar and water to crystallize frosting in real time.

chefjet-sugar-2-hires3D Systems is no stranger to printer technology. At last years CES, they won Best Emerging Tech award for their Cubify printer – a low cost device geared towards kids, artists, and other consumers inexperienced with the technology. And though the reviews coming out of CES are mixed on the nature of the flavor, the colors and shapes it can render into candy form are quite impressive.

The ChefJet only prints sugar or chocolate-colored confections while the Pro takes it up a notch with an inkjet filled with food coloring allowing for a plethora of colorful, and edible, results. These range from spirals and squares to 3-D pentagons and spheres, to incredibly elaborate designs that resemble chorals or casings for cakes. And of course, the candy can come in the form of pure sugar, or as white or dark chocolate.

chef-jet-pro1Other developments in the 3-D printing of food – such as NASA’s research on printing food in space (including pizza!), or printing food with personalized nutritional content – aren’t yet fully formed. ChefJet could be a little easier to integrate into small industries right away, since it has the ability to tailor make frosting in shapes that could easily be added to high-end desserts (like wedding cakes).

Even more exciting is the potential for home applications. Parents could rent a ChefJet Pro for a kids’ birthday party to create cakes or candy in the shape of their child’s favorite characters, or let children customize the Halloween candy that they would hand out. And just like the Easy Bake Oven of old, the result may not be totally tasty, but the process is still fun and gives people a chance to be creative.

The ChefJet and ChefJet Pro will likely be available in the second half of 2014, for an estimated $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. And while you’re waiting on one to become commercially available (and affordable), check out this video of the ChefJet in action at CES 2014:

Source: fastcodesign.com, nasa.gov