3D printing at the service of healthcare


Marta MatvijevJanuary 26, 20235 minute read

Additive manufacturing may still be developing, but it’s far from the futuristic utopia or “hype” as it was once labelled. Today it is the driving force behind life-changing innovations, and this is most tangible in healthcare*. 

A recent adopter of additive manufacturing for this purpose is a French rehabilitation centre for children with burn injuries that now uses a pain-free approach to fabricating facial orthoses. 

Burns are often treated with custom-made face masks that act as a massage on the impacted area and stimulate healing. The traditional approach to making facial orthoses requires taking an impression of the patient’s face with plaster strips in a process that is discomforting because of the direct contact with the flesh. 

The traumatic nature of the conventional manufacturing method has many caregivers exploring better alternatives. With this in mind, Romans Ferrari, a paediatric rehabilitation institution in Lyon, France, decided to try 3D printing, and, together with additive manufacturing hardware and software distributor 3DZ, piloted a painless treatment for children with burns. 

Precise, painless, and personalized  

To get a highly-accurate image of a child’s face, 3DZ substituted the traditional plaster strips with an Artec3D Eva 3D scanner. The data captured by the scanner serves as a negative image when creating a perfectly-fitting mask. The digital model of the face was 3D printed on a Formlabs Fuse1 and a polypropylene sheet is thermoformed on top of the model to create the orthosis. 

For the modeling, 3DZ called on Geomagic Freeform, Oqton’s 3D design and sculpting software that’s intuitive, user-friendly, and ideal for creating products that precisely fit the human body. The software was used in conjunction with a haptic device that allowed the team to quickly and easily mark the treatment area on the 3D digital model. The resulting orthosis design was exported from Freeform and sent to a printing software. 

Geomagic Freeform orthosisCreating an orthosis from an exact 3D model of a face 

The pilot project was completed in early 2022 and proved to be a major success. 3DZ found that using 3D printing for making facial masks was economically feasible and removed a lot of the stress for young patients. These findings prompted the French medical centre to permanently replace the old plaster cast and milling method with 3D scanning and printing. 

Read the full case study about the Roman Ferrari on 3DZ’s website

Miles ahead with 3D-printed prostheses 

On the other side of the Atlantic, people are rapidly embracing additively manufactured prosthetics as they prove to be comfortable in both routine activities and high-impact conditions like sports.  

Take for example Richard Blalock, an engineer whose lifelong passion for running leads him to traverse up to 2,000 miles (3,219 km) a year. He’s also been a long-time prosthetic user. 

Blalock’s right foot was amputated in 2009, after issues from an old injury resurfaced. Eager to return to running immediately after the surgery, he found that traditionally-fabricated prostheses resulted in pain and blisters. In a quest to find a better solution, he landed on custom-made 3D-printed prostheses – and he hasn’t gone back since. 

“The weight-savings are a big plus for me and comfort is right up there with that,” Blalock said on a podcast about 3D printing in orthotics and prosthetics. “We can also adapt the design to accommodate leg changes. Residual limbs will change over time, and, with 3D printing, you can change the model of the limb on the computer and print the new leg. That makes a night and day difference. It can be done in hours instead of days or weeks.” 

His original prosthesis was made from carbon fibre and substantially heavier. “Carbon fibre is quite light, but between the inner socket and the outer socket frame, my 3D-printed leg is about a pound lighter than my carbon fibre running leg. When I’m running 26 miles this is a huge difference,” Blalock added. 

The brains behind Blalock’s solution is Brent Wright, a certified prosthetist and board-certified orthotist, who runs the EastPoint Prosthetics & Orthotics clinic and LifeNabled a charity providing free prosthetics. Wright is a vocal proponent of 3D printing prosthetics and often shares success stories on social media and in the press. 

To fabricate the prosthesis, Wright used Multi Jet Fusion, a 3D printing technology where the printer lays down a layer of material powder on the printing bed and an inkjet head runs across the powder, depositing a fusing and a detailing agent.  

Wright’s workflow starts with a 3D scan of the limb. The scan data is transferred into Geomagic Freeform, where the mesh is converted into a voxel-based format. The socket and the frame are then designed to fit perfectly around the limb. The resulting 3D models are exported as an STL file and sent to printing preparation software. 

Wright used different materials to print each part of the prosthesis. The inner socket is made with MultiJet Fusion TPU, a material akin to flexible rubber, and the outer socket with MultiJet Fusion PA 12, which is elastic and resistant to high impact. 

Blalock was impressed with the result. “The frame I have currently that Brent 3D-printed is very sturdy – we could run over it with a truck and it’s not going to break. But I feel confident we could lower the weight even more,” he explained.  

You can hear about Blalock's journey on The Prosthetics and Orthotics Podcast

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*Geomagic Freeform is not a medical device and Oqton makes no claims that it is intended to treat, plan, or diagnose. However, there is evidence and publicly-available research that indicates many customers are successful using Geomagic Freeform in their own patient-specific solution workflows and are following all local regulatory requirements. 

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