Recently, a medical team in The Netherlands replaced a woman's lower jaw with a 3D-printed prosthetic and opened up a whole new future for orthopaedic surgery. The potential for 3D printing seems almost limitless and, here, we see that it can benefit the lives of those with disabilities in very different ways.
San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations is using 3D printing technology to improve the quality of life for amputees by creating more natural-looking prosthetic limbs. Dennis Weikel lost his right leg in a motorbike accident 35 years ago and hopes that a new prosthetic can give him renewed confidence, allowing him to stop hiding his disability.
'I usually would just wear a pair of pants and cover the whole thing, just kind of leave the questions out of it, I don’t actually want to talk about it. Just kind of leave it off the table and, I guess, the word I would want to use is hide, just hiding that aspect of you.'
With Bespoke's help, though, Weikel feels able to be more open and comfortable with the fact that he is an amputee. Bespoke specialises in 3D printed fairings which are designed to fit over a patient's existing prosthetic. The patient's surviving limb is scanned, enabling Bespoke to create a matching prosthetic copy. Once the scan is completed, it is sent to 3D Systems in South Carolina, where high powered lasers are used to fashion the fairing from a composite plastic powder.
Chad Crittenden lost his leg to cancer and has been wearing a prosthetic fairing created by Bespoke,
'I started to feel almost naked without it. And I realised, my gosh, I feel like something is really missing when I don't have that. And it is true, it's like your calf is there with it on because you look down and it is just the perfect shape. And I think subconsciously you are recognising that your calf is there. It's really neat.'
Scott Summit, founder of Bespoke Innovations, believes that prosthetic fairings are just the beginning and that, in the future, it will be possible to print organic tissue to recreate biological limbs.
Assistant Professor Amy Hurst, of The Maryland School for the Blind, is using 3D printing to help her students in a very different way. She is leading a research project which is developing ways to make learning maths easier for blind and partially sighted students. Traditional methods of teaching rely on audio descriptions of graphs and charts, which can be difficult to understand, so Hurst and her team have been working on way to create 3D models that the students can touch and feel.
The result is VizTouch, a software programme which converts mathematical equations into visual representations that can then be printed on a 3D printer. Hurst's work has shown that 3D printed models help blind and partially sighted students to understand data graphs in a totally new way.
As well as making it easier for students to understand graphs, 3D printing also saves the school time and money. The software can create a printable file shape in under a minute, the file is then sent to a printer, such as a MakerBot, which can produce simple objects in just a few minutes. Previously, models had to be hand-made and took considerably longer to create. Hurst and her colleagues hope that 3D printing can open up new horizons in education for blind and partially sighted people.
These are just a couple of examples of the way in which 3D printing can be used to enrich people's lives. The commercial and economic benefits of 3D printing have been much discussed and debated but there are also numerous applications in the fields of education and medicine. With scientists working on way of printing living tissue, for example, expect to see further developments in these areas in the near future.
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by Anthony Morgan