Oct. 31, 2014 | By Alec

Observant readers will have noticed that things have been looking quite good for wearers of prosthetics in recent months. Thanks to 3D printing technology, we've been seeing a wide range of wonderful, functional and cool prosthetics appearing all over the place.

Many of you will have doubtlessly heard of the wonderful work that the E-NABLE community is doing, who develop and 3D print custom-made and cool prosthetics for needy children. However, just this week we've also reported on an intriguing bionic arm prototype, that functions electronically.

Virtually all of these 3D printed prosthetics focus on the hands and arms, which is understandable. Not only are they easier to make, scifi-esque stories of robotic hands also easily capture the imagination. However, prosthetic legs – which hundreds of thousands of people need every day – could also easily benefit from 3D printing technology.

Fortunately, a relatively new San-Francisco-based company called LIM Innovations is working to realise just that. While functional prosthetic legs – i.e. weight bearing – have already existed for a while, development on these has been both painfully slow and expensive.

The main problem has always been connecting these prosthetics to the limb. For years, these prosthetics have been attached using a custom-made socket, based on molds taken from the limbs. While achieving a okay fit, each socket needs to be hand-crafted which can take weeks. All in all, it can be painfully expensive and doesn't guarantee perfect results.

However, LIM Innovations has now developed a quick, easy and relatively affordable way to customize and produce these sockets. Not only do they achieve a very high-level of comfort and quality, these Infinite Sockets are also ready to go within 24 hours of fitting. Reportedly, it's even comfortable enough to wear throughout the day.

So what's the secret? While old-fashioned sockets were made in a single piece of plastic, LIM's Infinite Socket consists of a number of separate components that can all be slightly adjusted for your comfort. It includes four thermoplastic carbon fiber struts connected to a knee joint. At the top of the socket, the four struts are held together by a soft foam pad with an adjustable strap on the outside that can be tightened or loosened by the wearer. A separate piece is then made to fit the wearer's butt, forming a seat that helps to bear the weight of the body.

And this multi-component, highly adjustable design has been largely 3D printed. To achieve the highest level of customization, LIM Innovations uses 3D scanning in the fitting process – as opposed to the old way of taking measurements by hand. This data is then used to generate 3D printable files. Several other parts, however, can be quickly mass-produced in plastic as well.

As the team behind LIM Innovations explained, the key to developing new 3D printable prosthetics is User Generated Innovation (UGI): 'UGI was born out of our commitment to respond to the needs of the users of our products: amputees and prosthetist. […] Empathetic design and innovation is at the core of our research and development, but we will also actively obtain feedback and respond to requests from our users to evolve our ability to optimize the human condition.'

This naturally made adjustability the key to developing the most functional prosthetics and 3D printing the technology to do so. 'The residual limb of an amputee is constantly changing; patients and prosthetists benefit from being able to make changes to the socket accordingly.' According to the team, a residual limb can change its volume by an average of 5 percent during the course of the day, logically complicating finding the right fit. 3D printing, for its ability to quickly and affordably produce small and unique components, naturally revealed itself as the technology to go to.

This 3D printed socket isn't fully available yet, as LIM Innovations is currently looking for clinical partners to work with their prosthetics. The team behind this innovative design hopes that this will enable them to take some major steps in fixing the last pressing problems in the world of prosthetics.

While perhaps not as cool as a bionic gripping arm, functional and comfortable prosthetics is the most important step in this whole process. Let's therefore hope these 3D printed Infinite Sockets will quickly become available everywhere.

Watch the video below the Infinite Socket in action:

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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