How A Digital Manufacturing Workflow Is Making Orthoses, Prostheses More Accessible
Digital manufacturing has made waves in the fields of orthoses and prostheses with companies like Protolabs accelerating the development with prosthetics manufacturers and R&D teams. We explore how the workflow within digital manufacturing is allowing for greater accessibility in healthcare.
What is digital manufacturing workflow?
Digital manufacturing workflow is a series of digital manufacturing processes used to create a final product. Thanks to developments within it, e.g., the availability of rapid prototyping through 3D printing and the high precision of CNC machining, the level of comfort, functionality, and performance of prostheses and orthosis is improving all the time.
Making prosthesis before digital manufacturing
To fully understand the magnitude of change in prostheses’ accessibility today, it’s useful to know what came first when manufacturing prosthetics and orthoses. Manual craftsmanship was the mainstream approach with prosthetics and devices typically made from metal and leather. Although these parts were often bulky, the increased use of thermosetting resins for lower limbs, improved manual production and quality to some extent. However, the manual process of taking castings for moulds takes time, and a varying number of materials and tools are required. Added to this, patients need several fitting appointments over the course of their treatment, and the time and costs to health care providers can be extensive.
The digital manufacture of prosthetics limbs
Now we are seeing another big change as more and more people need and expect highly functional and personalised prosthetics as quickly as possible. The combination of research and development into 3D printing and the high precision of CNC machining has opened the doors for the joint manufacturing of versatile and customised prosthetics that fit exactly to a patient’s body, and in a way that absorbs force effectively.
Digital manufacturing removes big steps from the manual process too, speeding up production. Firstly, a 3D scan is taken to gain the accurate measurements of the body part or limb required. 3D printing uses Computer Aided Design (CAD software), where designs are constructed, optimised, and modified with a high level of accuracy. The manufacturing of prosthetics then begins with the use of CNC machining or 3D printing.
Advantages of 3D printing prosthetics
Thanks to the high level of detail with 3D printing’s design process, any fine adjustments needed take little time using CAD software, unlike manual manufacturing which can take months with repeat visits and fittings for patients. Prosthetics can be printed using a wide range of materials, and a variety of colours too, making them more personal.
Traditionally made prosthetics are often not the most comfortable but with the intricate design capabilities of 3D printing that can assess the anatomical data of a patient, better fitted parts can be created. In addition, conventional prosthetics last approximately five years, but for young people whose bodies are still developing, they will need to return frequently to their healthcare provider for a newer, more fitting prosthetic. This has a cost implication too. However, with 3D printing, edits can be made easily, and production is swift, making them more financially accessible.
CNC machining for prosthetics
Standing for Computer Numerical Control, CNC machining is used widely in the manufacture of prosthetics. A CNC machine is an automated machine which uses G-Code (pre programmed instructions) that tell it the measurements, speed, and coordination for production. It is used heavily in the automotive and aerospace manufacturing sectors. The technology is often used in conjunction with 3D printing for prosthetics. The 3D model of a limb or body part can use this to create the limb with the highly precise technology.
Diversifying prosthetic components with DM
Greater innovation around prosthetics is also improving thanks to digital manufacturing. The time it takes to create designs and generate new ideas is shortening. New concept creations are coming to the fore too with entrepreneurs and researchers continually coming up with new creations – 3D printed prosthetic covers and wallet and water friendly legs to name just two. We are also now seeing more thought into the emotional impact of those needing prosthetics and how they can be engineered through greater personalisation as well as just functionality.
Digital manufacturing capabilities make innovation ambitions more possible from the very beginning of the process with CAD design software, to the high precision production with various CNC machining equipment. The phases of development including the manufacturing viability of a new concept, functionality goals, and the regulatory requirements are all assessed before production too.
With greater affordability thanks to the shorter development times and cost-effectiveness of digital manufacturing, there has already been an acceleration of innovative solutions. The speed with which the technology continues to shift only suggests the future of prosthetics to advance and further benefit patients.