Sep 9, 2016 | By Nick

The opening ceremony in Rio has hailed the start of the Paralympic Games, signaling the start of two weeks of intense competition in which 3D printing is set to play a significant part.

The athletes have their own specific requirements for a prosthesis or wheelchair, depending on their own particular disability and sport. A perfectly tailored arm, leg or chair can give them the confidence to go out there and give it their best shot, throw or jump.

The rules are very exacting regarding the materials and specifications, but as in top level motorsport that still leaves room for innovation and manoeuver.

So 3D printing has come into its own creating tailored solutions. Here are some of the highlights.

America

The US has become the spiritual home of 3D printing, so it’s no surprise that the biggest names in sport and additive manufacturing have come together. The US national team is used to winning and 3D printing offers them a chance to take a competitive advantage to Rio.

BMW Designworks came on board and its creative consultancy has created a 3D printed carbon-fiber racing wheelchair that is lightweight, streamlined and tailored to fit the athlete. Special 3D printed gloves with palm protection that doesn’t wear away as quickly as traditional alternatives are also part of the package that BMW hopes will power the US to a mass of gold medals.

Titan Robotics, a large-scale 3D printing services company in Colorado, has its own connection to the games. Mechanical Engineer Allison Jones is a two-time gold medalist and now she works with cyclist Billy Lister. He suffered a stroke at the age of 17, but is a force to be reckoned with thanks to the tailored brace on the frame of his bike to keep his arm in place.

The University of Illinois has also become a spiritual home for Paralympians from around the US and 12 of the nation’s 72 athletes train there. They include Tatyana McFadden, the Russian born racer who overcame Spina Bifida to win 10 Paralympic medals. She had one of the finest training facilities in the land to prepare for Rio. Oil giant BP has helped equip the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services and the team has a team of Kinesiology experts that help design the very best equipment.

Naturally, with so many Paralympic athletes on the track and field, it’s a perfect testbed for new equipment and the university’s engineering department now works closely with the team to 3D print prototypes.

They have focused on the gloves athletes use to ‘punch’ the wheels thousands of times in a single event. The wear and tear can be immense, but 3D printing and a vast number of prototypes have helped produce gloves that can take a beating and still perform. The team even has its own 3D printer in the workshop to print replacements to the individual’s exacting spec.

The gloves are clearly a big deal as Kentucky man Raymond Jones created new ones for his daughter Aerelle to take on the track with his home 3D printer.

UK

The British team has a partner that is the envy of the world in BAE Systems. The aerospace giant has applied its engineering know-how to racing wheelchairs and a variety of other systems, which almost certainly include prosthetics and running blades.

It has applied everything from 3D printing and cutting edge design through to advanced timing gear to help the team find that extra tenth. It has kept quiet on the details, but recently claimed to have increased the acceleration on ParalympicsGB team by an average of 20%.

So while BAE Systems reaches for the stars with the likes of the Juno satellite, the British team will be reaching for gold with aerospace-grade equipment.

Germany

Denise Schindler's composite and relatively simple prosthetic leg has taken the lion’s share of the publicity in advance of the Paralympics, because it’s the first 3D printed prosthetic leg to feature in competition at the games.

Schindler will use it in the 3000m pursuit and hopes that the weight will give her a big advantage in three events. It certainly won’t weigh her down. This composite leg weighs in at just 812g, while the leg she used in London, which was made with plaster casting techniques, weighed a hefty 1.3kg.

It doesn’t sound like a huge difference. But every gram, fraction and tenth counts in Paralympic competition.

Aerodynamics and the degree of flex were just as important as the final weight and the team worked with Autodesk to refine the design. This involved printing 52 prototypes on the Stratasys Fortus MC 450.

The fact that it could also cost about 20% of the price when Autodesk has refined the process is just an added bonus for the Paralympian. But when you consider Autodesk’s main goal for the project then the price takes on added significance. That’s because the San Francisco-based company wants to provide designs that people of all ages can use to compete in sports.

Amputees and people with congenital defects often feel excluded from sports and measures like this would go a long way to helping them. So whether she’s laying the ground for the next generation of Paralympians or just helping kids on to the playing fields, Denise Schindler is already an inspiration.

 

Italy

While surfing is not yet part of the Paralympics, the inaugural World Adaptive Surfing Championship took place last year, and it surely can't be long before Paralympic committees recognize the growing interest in the sport. At the next Summer Olympics, Japan 2020, surfing will be part of the event for the first time in history. Will the Paralympics follow suit?

Surfing is a supreme test of balance, especially when the competitors are going for a gold medal and they have to pull out all of the stops. WASPmedical came to surfer Fabrizio Passetti’s aid with a carbon-fiber prosthetic leg that is lightweight, stable and a perfect fit.

Passetti lost his leg in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18 and has competed in adaptive events ever since. The prosthetic takes a serious beating from the waves, though, and it has to be strong, stable and light to give the surfer a fighting chance of a medal. Passetti now knows he’s got 3D printed carbon-fiber magic between him and his board, which will give the Italian a serious boost when he leaps from the crest of a wave.

WASP is the company behind the Big Delta large-scale 3D printer, but it relied on the DeltaWasp 40 70 and the DeltaWasp 20 40 to produce the carbon-fiber prosthesis for Passetti and a 3D printed hand brace for canoeist Veronica Yoko Plebani.

Plebani, a 20-year-old canoeist and snowboarder, was born in Brescia in 1996 and competed at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Rio 2016 will be her first summer Paralympics. Remarkably, Plebani also competes in the Winter Paralympics as a snowboarder, so she’ll almost certainly be back to WaspMedical in two years.

The 3D printed arm brace and leg prosthesis were produced at Del Bene Fabio, an orthopedic lab in Trieste, Italy. Not only did WASP use high-quality 3D printers, but they also chose specialist 3D printing materials out of which he could create durable, resistant prostheses. 

Brazil

The National Institute of Technology put its brightest minds to work on helping its athletes do their best on home soil. The team needed to create specialist seats for five competitors in the shotput, discus and javelin.

While it might sound like a relatively simply job, each discipline requires a different chair and then it still must be tailored to the individual athlete. Support and balance are the keys to long throws and feeling comfortable in the chair can be the difference between victory and defeat.

The National Institute of Technology researchers studied the action of the individual athletes and took 3D images of them throughout the throwing action before using the images to design the ultimate chair for each individual. It took a year and numerous prototypes to get the perfect combination of shape and materials.

Paralympians Roseanna Ferreira dos Santos, who won the gold in Sydney in 2000, Vanderson Silva, Julyana Cristina da Saliva, Marcio Luca da Paz and Rafael Amorim Coury will all take to their field in these unique chairs. These are raw, basic events, but now the athletes will feel the benefit of cutting edge technology as they gun for glory in front of the partisan Brazilian crowd.

 

 

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