3D Printing and the Changing Orthotics Industry

3D printing is a critical part of a new cloud-based solution for building orthotics.

The University of Michigan, Altair Engineering and Stratasys have teamed up to create the CYBER Team, a group dedicated to creating better ankle foot orthotics (AFOs).

Currently, the process for creating orthotics is slow and leads to a product that can be painful to wear for long periods of time. To begin the process, patients have to have an impression of their lower leg cast with fiberglass tape. Once a cast has been made, liquid plaster is poured into the cast to form a positive model. With the positive model in hand, a trained orthotist technician must them sculpt the model into its final shape. The final refined shape is then inserted into a vacuum-forming machine and the thermoplastic end product is born. Finally, there is some trimming of the surplus plastic, and straps and buckles are added to allow fitting to the patient. This process generally takes two to four weeks from start to finish.

Aside from the fact that the current process is slow, it also produces an inferior product that’s oftentimes critical to a patient’s lifestyle. To remedy this, the CYBER Team has proposed a digital manufacturing solution to the orthotics problem.

CYBER’s prescription is based on the Altair OptiStruct structural analysis package and uses the cloud to optimize workflow and computer processing time. This will allow clinicians to create AFOs in an online environment where they’ll have access to automated tools for building orthotics. What is most powerful about this new idea is that physicians will have the opportunity to use powerful cloud-based algorithms to optimize orthotic geometry by running stress tests. Once a best solution has been found, 3D printer toolpaths can be generated and the resulting AFO can be sent out to be produced in the fused deposition modeling machine. 

“While [orthotics] have always been created with a patient’s custom shape, additive manufacturing provides improved possibilities to truly customize the manufacturing of an AFO,” said Jeff Wensman of the University of Michigan Orthotics and Prosthetics Center. “But, additive manufacturing, and specifically the CYBER team, is creating a process to actually engineer and design an AFO for a specific patient. Different amounts or types of material can be printed to provide a specified stiffness and allow areas of flexibility, based on the patient presentation. This exciting technology opens up an entirely new tool box that the clinician can use to enhance patient outcomes.”

In the end, the CYBER Team’s plan could be beneficial to a wide range of patients outside of the orthotics market. For anyone who has an injury that requires a custom-fit prosthetic, CYBER’s cloud-based additive manufacturing solution might be the key to creating a better solution in a more expedient manner.