3D printing has always been a Hollywood sweetheart. Although, not the conventional blue eyed, peroxide blonde kind.
With movies like RoboCop, Pacific Rim, The Terminator & Captain America utilising 3D printing technology to create various props and special effects gear, the technical industry is slowly making strides to turn the concept of 3D printed suits and prosthetics into a reality.
Stepping out of a wheelchair and into an exoskeleton: Amanda Boxtel
Researchers are looking to experiment with the idea of durable exoskeletons that can help those who suffer from paralysis walk again, as in the case of Miss Amanda Boxtel, a woman who was injured in a tragic skiing accident in 1992 and left paralysed from waist down. Told by doctors that she would never be able to walk again, she never gave up hope and with the help of 3D Systems, an American 3D printing company, moulds of her feet and thighs were taken to design a bionic exoskeleton suit that would fit around her body, bear the load of her weight and help give her structure and control over her movements. In an inspiring Ted Talk and demonstration, Boxtel spoke about how thanks to the advancements in technology, there was hope for the future of paraplegics and how she didn’t let her accident render her immobile. The exoskeleton has helped improve her quality of life and even helps her stand upright and alleviates the pain associated with her injury.
Boxtel went on to become an integral member of Bridging Bionics– a non-profit organisation that aims to help paraplegics and those suffering from neural impairments and issues like cerebral palsy walk again- both with assistance and without. While Amanda herself cannot walk without the aid of an exoskeleton, she has helped numerous other people walk again through therapy and training and aims to continue doing so.
Advanced prosthetic hands
In 2014, students at UCF manufactured a fully functional myoelectric 3D printed arm for a young boy, that had multiple grip levels and fit comfortably. Using a 3D printer they managed to manufacture the components required for just $350 which is less than a fraction of the cost of a regular functional myoelectric arm that can run anywhere between $10,000 to $20,000.
Currently a company that goes by the name Be-bionic manufactures one of the most advanced myoelectric prosthetic arms on the market, with people like actress Angel Giuffria of Hunger Games fame and many more inspirational individuals who’ve spoken at TedX events and such, it’s no wonder that this company is making waves across the prosthetic industry.
Hugh Herr, a biophysics engineer was a mere 17 years old when he lost both of his legs to frostbite during a hiking accident. Disappointed with the prosthetics he received, he decided to take matters into his own hands and created various iterations and modifications and designed specialised prosthetics as per his athletic requirements. He even beat the limitations of the human foot by creating narrower or wider base to his feet or modifying his feet to resemble ice picks, allowing him to scale vertical walls of ice, thus managing to surpass even able bodied individuals with biological legs. Herr joked that due to his success as a paraplegic mountain climber, he’d had many of his peers and competitors actually threaten to amputate their own legs to achieve the ‘unfair’ advantage he had over them.
Now, a professor and researcher at MIT, he spends most of his time making modifications, advancements and improving on the prosthetics he builds. With the help of scientists and researchers on his team he was able to help Boston bombing victim Adrianne Haslet-Davis take back to her feet and dance again after she had to amputate her left leg due to injuries sustained by the blast. Also experimenting with the concept of exoskeletons designed to help take the load off people who walk or run, the team is trying to bridge the gap between humans and machines.
Turning basic prosthetics into functional fashion statements: Aimee Mullins
Fashion model and athlete, Aimee Mullins was barely a year old when she had to amputate both her legs due to a congenital disorder called fibular hemimelia. Learning to walk, run, dance and jump on plaster prostheses, she eventually went on to compete at a world class level and beat out her more advanced prostheses wearing competitors in the 1996 Paralympics games. By the time she graduated from the prestigious Georgetown University with a full academic scholarship, she had caught the attention of many media publications as well as famous fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, for whom she walked a legendary runway show in handcrafted wooden prosthetic legs that resembled boots. Giving a Ted Talk on her 12 pair of legs and how they impact her daily life, she has built a colourful career as an athlete, model and woman’s rights advocate. Her prosthetic legs have been designed by numerous people and in a variety of materials which included wood ash, optically clear polyurethane, and her most famously known ‘cheetah sprinting legs’ that give her the ability to run faster and compete in races.
Exoskeletons in the warehouse (airport)
3D printed materials are clearly pretty lightweight and easy to produce and manufacture according to the requirements of the wearer. These exo-skeletons could likewise be utilized to shield people from getting injured while taking part in activities that require hard work like heavy lifting and moving items around. It can help keep them from sustaining injuries that could affect their work. A Japanese company that goes by the name of Cyberdyne declared new innovations it’ll begin rolling out at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in September: Two robots and an exoskeleton. One robot transports inconvenient baggage, another cleans the office, and the exo assists air terminal staff with hard work.
Exoskeletons on the battlefield
TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) is a suit that is being developed by the United States Special Operations Command. It can monitor the vital stats of a soldier like heart rate, hydration levels and body temperature. The suits are also designed to help stop bleeding by using a wound stasis program that applies a specially formulated material to the wound to stop blood from seeping through, both internally and externally.In terms of cutting costs and making the suits more unique to each individual soldier, 3D printing the outer shell and casing might be a smart idea as you can customise the suits to fit the needs of each individual soldier.
The biggest challenges developers seem to be facing with the TALOS system isn’t necessarily developing entirely new technologies, but rather finding ways to mate these disparate systems into one seamless unit that will function with the speed and reliability required for special operations missions.
There’s still a long way to go before 3D printing becomes the norm in the prosthetics industry but the community has already made numerous strides and will keep doing so in the near future.