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3D-printed prosthetics offer amputees new lease on life

posted 27 Feb 2012, 06:40 by Mpelembe   [ updated 27 Feb 2012, 06:40 ]

3D printing is revolutionising the field of prosthetics. San Francisco company Bespoke Innovations is printing designer prosthetics specifically to restore symmetry to the bodies of amputees, while making a fashion statement at the same time.

Dennis Weikel is having the lower half of his body scanned and digitised. It's the first step towards getting a new type of cover for his prosthetic leg. He hopes it will finally allow him to stop hiding the fact that he is an amputee.
"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," said Weikel, a 51 year old network administrator from Berkelely, California.

But now, with new options presented by San Francisco company Bespoke Innovations, Dennis is bringing his disability out of hiding.

Bespoke Innovations specialises in 3D printed prosthetic fairings that fit over a traditional prosthetic. Bespoke founder Scott Summit says that every person is physically unique. By scanning an amputees' surviving limb, they are able to make a matching prosthetic copy thereby re-creating the body's natural symmetry. Summit says this turns the traditional design process upside down - giving amputees a prosthetic that is fabricated specifically for them.

"We actually involve the person from the first moment, by creating a three dimensional scan from them, we have their body in our computer. And then we really ping them for their aesthetic choices, you know, what's their taste preference, because that is going to be every bit as important as their shape is what they want to represent themselves, what they want as a part of their body," said Summit, a former professor of design and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Summit says the idea came to him when he saw how modern 3D printing technologies are revolutionising the way products are designed and engineered. "What 3D printing allows is it lets you think in very different terms. Instead of assembling parts to make a final thing, you can print that entire thing in one shot. Not only that, but it is very specific to the person and of all products that should be specific to the person, perhaps a prosthetic leg is the highest priority there," he said. After the scan is completed, it is sent over to 3D Systems, a 3D printing company in South Carolina. Here the scan is fed into the printer where high powered lasers turn a bed of composite plastic powder into the fairing.

Chad Crittenden lost his leg to cancer. He was one of the first people to receive a Bespoke fairing. "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 euphoniously you are recognising that your calf is there. It's really neat," said Crittenden.

Dennis Weikel hopes his new fairing will not only change the way the world sees him, but restore the sense of wholeness he says he lost 35 years ago in a motorcycle accident.

"It doesn't look like a prosthetic leg anymore. It actually looks like a piece of art work," he said. Scott Summit says prosthetic fairings are just the beginning. He believes in the future printing artificial limbs will be replaced with the printing of organic tissue to remake biological limbs. He says that if lizard can grow a new tails, humans should be able to print new legs.