3-D Printed Orthotics

Researchers at the U-M Orthotics and Prosthetics Center have developed a new cyber manufacturing system to design and produce custom orthotics and prosthetics. The system, which incorporates both optical scanners and 3D printers, has been shown to produce better-fitting, lighter assistive devices in a fraction of the time it takes today.

Jeff Wensman, director of clinical and technical services at U-M’s Orthotics and Prosthetics Center, says the new process is a major departure from current methods, which begin with wrapping fiberglass tapes around the patient’s limb. The tapes harden into a mold, which is then filled with plaster to make a model of the limb. Next, heated plastic is formed around the mode. The device is then hand-finished by smoothing the edges and attaching mechanical components like straps. It’s a labor-intensive process that requires a large shop and a highly trained staff.

The new technique begins with a three-dimensional optical scan of the patient’s limb. The orthotist uploads the scanned data to a cloud-based design center and uses specially developed software to design the assistive device. Next, the software creates a set of electronic instructions and transmits them back to the orthotist’s facility, where an onsite 3-D printer produces the actual device in a few hours.

The only on-site equipment required by the new process is an optical scanner, a computer and a 3-D printer. In the future, this could give small clinics in remote areas the ability to provide custom orthotics and prosthetics.

“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 very quickly using the cloud-based software,” said Albert Shih, U-M professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and the lead on the project. “By that afternoon, they could have a 3-D printed device that’s ready for final evaluation and use.”

Shih and his team are working with U-M Tech Transfer professionals to create an attractive commercialization path to help this new technology become widely-used.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and America Makes, a partnership between industry, academia, government and others that aims to develop advanced manufacturing and 3-D printing capabilities in the U.S. Software for the project is being developed by Altair and Standard Cyborg. Stratasys provided the 3-D printer for the project.


The above contains reporting from the U-M College of Engineering’s Gabe Cherry.