Nov 1, 2017 | By David

It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that orthopaedics is a field that has been completely revolutionized by the implementation of 3D technology. The use of 3D scanning to produce an incredibly accurate virtual image of a patient’s body which is then transformed into a highly personalized 3D printed orthopaedic device is making medical professionals’ work much easier and more efficient, as well as contributing significantly to patients’ wellbeing. The latest breakthrough in this field is the development of casts with improved skin comfort, and it has been carried out by a team of researchers from TU Delft and Boston University.

The optimization of mechanical stability in orthopaedic products is something that has long since been established, especially with 3D printing technology now expanding the range of potential materials and structures that it’s possible to use. 3D printing’s improved accuracy and personalization has also enabled the production of casts and other support and protective devices that fit the patient perfectly, optimizing their physical comfort and flexibility. The feel of a cast on a patient’s skin, however, is an aspect that has been neglected until now.

Casts tend to give the skin little ability to breathe, which can lead to irritation as well as overheating. Researchers from TU Delft and Boston University collaborated in order to develop a method for 3D printing casts that will sit on a patient’s skin more comfortably due to improved air circulation, without sacrificing the other important mechanical aspects.

The heat sensitivity of the skin is just as varied as patient-specific as their anatomical structure, and the new method is able to take this into account by using thermal imaging in the same way as 3D scanning. An infrared camera is used to analyze heat sensitivity, and this data is processed in order to produce a heat map for the particular part of the body that requires the cast. This distribution is combined with the digital 3D model to produce a printable net-like structure, which has smaller or larger holes in specific places in order to optimize the airflow.

The introduction of holes into the structure brings with it a corresponding weakening of the mechanical strength, so the physical forces also need to be taken into account. The cast is accordingly printed thicker in specific areas in order to make sure it is strong enough to provide the required support and protection. The material for the 3D printed cast is chosen in order to be sufficiently lightweight and flexible. Water-resistance is another important characteristic of the material, as anyone who has ever tried to take a shower while wearing a plaster cast on their arm can confirm, so this is also taken into account before printing. The cast was finally 3D printed in one piece using an Ultimaker FDM machine.

The result of the process is a cast that has optimized comfort for a patient’s skin as well as being a great fit, while at the same time being strong enough to carry out all the necessary practical functions of this kind of orthopaedic device. According to Professor Charlie Wang of the faculty of IDE at TU Delft, "I think this is the first result in this area that takes thermal comfort into account. These personalised plaster connections from the 3D printer provide much more natural support, which offers patients more comfort through optimal air circulation. This can also help the healing process. However, we are still in the prototype phase, testing in a medical environment must still happen.’’

Xiaoting Zhang, Guoxin Fang, Chengkai Dai, Jouke Verlinden, Jun Wu, and Emily Whiting all worked with Wang on this innovative project, ‘Thermal-Comfort Design of Personalized Casts’. The results will be demonstrated at this year’s ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, in Quebec City.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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