Nov 2, 2016 | By Tess

The importance of foot comfort cannot be overstated, especially for those suffering from conditions such as diabetes. That is, while ordinary discomfort in shoes can be frustrating to anyone, it can actually be dangerous for those with diabetes, as atrophied nerve endings in the foot caused by the disease can dull or eliminate the sensation of pain, which can in turn result in serious foot injuries or wounds. Custom padded insoles have been an important part in curbing this problem, though until very recently they have remained expensive and not widely accessible—only available through specialized orthopedic shoemakers. Fortunately, recent efforts have shown how 3D printing can be used to make the much needed insoles more accessible than ever before.

3D printing, which offers the opportunity to manufacture bespoke items in small or even single batches, could be the solution to producing custom-fitted, medical grade insoles. As a German-based initiative called LAUF (a German acronym for “laser-assisted construction of customized footwear”) is demonstrating, 3D printing could be the key to digitizing the manufacturing of insoles.

LAUF, which is being funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, consists of a collaboration between industry experts and a team of researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes for Mechanics of Materials (IWM), and for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology (UMSICHT). The project is demonstrating the advantages of not only digital foot mapping, but also of 3D printing insoles for diabetes patients.

As IMW scientist Dr. Tobias Ziegler explains, “Digital foot mapping is already common practice. As part of [LAUF], we have now also completely digitized the insole production process. Using newly developed software, the orthopedic shoemaker can design an insole for an individual patient and can print out the result on a 3D printer.”

According to the researchers, the stated advantages of 3D printing insoles include producing the custom insoles at a much lower cost, making them more accessible. In addition to the cost advantage, the fully digitized process could make the mechanical properties of the orthopedic insoles more evident and concrete, making them more appealing to health insurance companies. As the team emphasizes, having fully digitized insoles allows the health insurance companies to gather scientific data on them and their effectiveness.

The next step in the research is to develop more innovative materials for 3D printing the insoles. Companies Covestro and Lehmann & Voss & Co., who were responsible for 3D printing insoles out of flexible and soft TPU material a few years ago, are now working with UMSICHT researchers to develop new types of TPU that are optimized for insole use.

At the same time, researchers from IWM have been designing 3D structures and geometries to make the TPU insoles as well constructed and orthopedically viable as possible. Dr. Ziegler explains, “Where does an insole need to be soft, or more rigid? By altering the structure type, we can precisely determine the rigidity of the insole…We simulate the entire production process, too, in order to identify where there is potential for optimization.”

The insoles themselves are being 3D printed by Fraunhofer IWM's industrial partners rpm GmbH and Sintermask, which use selective laser sintering (SLS) to additively manufacture the custom insoles. Once printed, the insole prototypes are sent back to IWM where they are tested extensively. According to the research team, if proved fully viable, the software being developed through LAUF could be available through the IETEC in as little as two years.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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