Traditional techniques for creating an orthotic start with making a mold. Typically, this involved wrapping the subject’s foot in a plaster of paris cast. This was uncomfortable and intimidating for patients. It was also inaccurate as the molds were typically taken in a non-weight-bearing position. Further it required podiatrists to have a dedicated “wet room” where casts were applied.
“The goals for any orthotic device are to support the foot, improve foot function and correct alignment,” says Podiatrist, Ian Goodchild. “The traditional way to make them was using plaster of paris casts, which is inaccurate and messy. Often the result was an orthotic that was almost unwearable. The industry needed a better solution.”
Once a mold was created, orthotics were traditionally made using subtractive manufacturing. The product was either milled using a computer numerical control (CNC) router or through heat forming plastics over a positive cast. Both methods required skilled labour and a significant amount of finishing. The process was slow and often required multiple fittings to achieve a satisfactory result. Further, the equipment used in traditional manufacturing, including milling machines and grinders, took up a significant amount of space. Perhaps most importantly, subtractive manufacturing processes were also highly wasteful. It often took 1.5 kg of material to create a pair of orthotics that weighed a mere 100 g.
Using 3D Printing
iOrthotics develops custom made orthotic devices for podiatrists. The company has embraced digital manufacturing processes and uses their capabilities to create orthotic solutions that offer unique advantages to podiatry clinics and their customers.
“As a rapidly growing business, we needed to innovate our manufacturing process to keep up with demand,” said iOrthotics Founder and General Manager, Dean Hartley. It was impractical to continue utilizing subtractive milling, which could produce just 30 plastic devices per day. With 3D scanning and printing we saw an opportunity to improve the quality of orthotic devices, while also scaling up our production and reducing the waste involved with traditional methods.”
The first step in creating a digital solution was to enable 3D scanning, removing the need for a plaster of paris mold. Due to recent advancements in technology, a 3D scanning solution enabled more exact measurements without the challenges of traditional molds. In addition to being less intimidating and messy, this new technology is more portable, allowing the foot to be measured in a more natural position.
Beyond 3D scanning, a custom software was developed to automate much of the work involved with designing a print-ready orthotic. Scanned data was captured and converted into a computer aided design (CAD) file that could be 3D printed.
Finally, a 3D printing solution was needed to meet their needs for strength and durability, while also being economically viable. iOrthotics found that HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology produced high quality products and the equipment would take far less space than traditional manufacturing equipment, allowing them to operate more efficiently. Further the speed of production would allow them to meet the growth their business was experiencing.
“Our digital workflow requires far fewer steps,” said iOrthotics Technical Development Manager, Thomas Leahy. “We receive a scan from a podiatrist, load it into our custom software, 3D print it, clean it off, glue on a top cover, and we’re done. Traditional manufacturing of orthotics would often take up to two weeks from start to finish. We routinely go from scan to shipment in three to five days.” iOrthotics has been able to triple their output, going from producing 30 orthotic devices per day to producing roughly 90 per day. As demand increases, they can add even more capacity.
The design freedom that comes with additive manufacturing has also played a role. The products produced are more flexible and more forgiving. This leads to very positive outcomes for the end users of their products.
Having the ability to customise each orthotic also benefits the podiatrist. “3D printing technology makes mass customisation possible,” said Mr. Hartley. “The ability to make customised parts on a large scale creates a paradigm shift. All industries will go through change in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but perhaps none as dramatically as the manufacturing sector.”
Everyone benefits from the economic and environmental impact of reduced waste made possible by additive manufacturing. In the orthotics industry, subtractive techniques typically waste 90 percent or more of the material required to make a finished product. Only a minimum percentage of the material is wasted with the unique reusability of 3D printing solutions.
With 3D printing, iOrthotics is able to create a stronger, lighter and more accurate product which improves the lives of people with debilitating pain. At the same time, they’ve created a scalable model which can help far more people receive treatment more quickly and less expensively.
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