3D Printing Revolutionizes Orthotics

The traditional process for creating orthotics has fallen into an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” category of procedures. Characterized by high labor and time demands, traditional workflows produce orthotics that patients expect, but with added costs, indicating significant room for improvement.

Digital workflows for custom orthotics encompass new design, testing, and manufacturing options to reduce customization costs and speed up production cycles for lower lead times, better-fitting devices, and improved patient outcomes. Known for its rapid production and relatively affordable processes, 3D printing provides stakeholders in the orthotics industry with a powerful solution that delivers customizable orthoses quickly and inexpensively.

Traditional vs. 3D Printed Orthotics

Orthotic devices are manufactured in a variety of ways depending upon the end-use part. Traditional manufacturing processes, including plaster casting, impression foam casting, conventional machining, thermoforming, and wax casting, may be utilized for manufacturing orthosis.

Despite which methods are utilized, the basic workflows can be summarized as follows:

  1. A map of the patient is created through an impression or cast, technical drawings, and measurements. This can take up to one hour to complete.
  2. A developmental model is created from the topographical map. Depending on the process used, this can take from one to two hours.
  3. The model is fitted and sculpted to ensure it fits the patient. This process can involve multiple appointments as adjustments to the model are made. These appointments can take up to several hours over the course of multiple weeks depending on the treatment plan.
  4. Lastly, the orthotic goes through post-processing and finishing to prep it for use.

During this manual process, potential errors can compound at each stage of the workflow. Mistakes in casts, inaccurate measurements, and design errors can extend an already lengthy process resulting in excess manual labor, extended production times, and additional patient appointments. Additionally, this manual workflow requires specialized labor in an environment filled with dust and chemical fumes. All told, it can take three to six weeks to complete a single customization.

Advantages of 3D Printing for Orthotics

The fine degree of customization and personalization of 3D-printed orthotics offer enhanced biomechanical precision and patient comfort. These designs are tailored directly to the needs of the patient, allowing for optimal treatment and comfort.

“Orthotics should be built for a person, and should treat only the symptoms, not be standardized solutions that put them in boxes.”

Matej Vlašič, aNImaKe

The efficiency and affordability of 3D-printed orthotics make custom-fit solutions accessible to more patients and advantageous to those producing orthopedics. After learning new workflows, adopting orthotics 3D printing has consistently been shown to increase productivity while reducing costs.

Time Savings: Digital workflows save time for both orthotists and patients. Easy, efficient workflows allow orthotists and staff to spend less time creating models and post-processing and more time on higher-value tasks. For patients, fewer appointments are needed for fittings and less time during appointments is needed to gather impressions and measurements.

Cost Savings: Reduce production, labor, material, storage, and shipping costs by digitizing and simplifying your workflow with 3D printing. With traditional workflows, additional materials are required for taking impressions and mold making, not to mention storage for all of these materials. 3D printing negates the need for these. Additionally, the post-processing of 3D-printed orthotics saves on labor for increased efficiency.

Simplified Workflow: Digital workflows are less labor-intensive and include fewer steps, cutting out entire sequences of manual processes including multiple patient visits for fittings. Plus, batch printing means multiple orthoses can be printed at a time, depending upon the size and appliances being printed.

Improved Logistics: Digitization simplifies logistics management. A 3D scan can be taken anywhere, and then sent remotely for digital modeling and design. Once designed, digital files can be sent directly to the printer — onsite or off.

Sustainability: With the digital workflow, a lot less raw material is required to produce the end product as the creation of a physical model or replica is eliminated. Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing, used for the production of multiple types of orthotics, enables the recycling of powder into the next build for the reduction or even elimination of waste. Unlike traditional methods of production, where models and plastics must be disposed of, 3D printing minimizes waste and reduces the use of harsh chemicals.

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