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.
Designers 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.
As 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.
The 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.
And 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.
Unlike 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.
Nevertheless, 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