Nov 2, 2017 | By Tess

3D printing in the military is really taking off, but it’s not all 3D printed drones and weaponry: the technology is also serving an important rehabilitative purpose for soldiers who are injured and lose limbs on the battlefield.

Peter Liacouras, director of 3DMAC's

At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for instance, medical engineers are working with additive manufacturing to create custom prosthetic solutions for returning war veterans.

In fact, the center is even operating a 3D Medical Applications Center (3DMAC), where a team of dedicated engineers and 3D printing technicians are developing bespoke devices based off of veteran requests.

3DMAC receives requests from the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop certain bespoke assistive devices for veterans. If no existing part or device exists on the market, the team takes it upon themselves to design and create the custom device.

In one case, the team developed special 3D printed feet called “shorty feet,” which could be attached to a veteran’s leg stumps. The veteran in question asked for a set of prosthetics which would allow him to get around by the pool on his honeymoon without having to strap on his full leg prosthetics.

3D printed shorty feet prosthetics

When confronted with the request, the 3DMAC team set about designing a pair of feet which could be easily attached to the veteran’s legs.

As Peter Liacouras, the center’s director of services and a biomedical engineer PhD, explained: “Wearing full prosthetic legs can be cumbersome and also, the full prosthetics for pool wear are very expensive and not necessarily 100 per cent waterproof.”

The 3D printed shorty feet were first prototyped out of a plastic material and once the fit was confirmed they were additively manufacturing from a titanium alloy and given to the soldier. This was back in 2002.

Since then, Liacouras said the 3D printing center has dispatched over 70 pairs of the shorty feet to vets who have lost their legs. He says the shorty feet are good alternatives to full leg prosthetics, especially for activities like getting out of bed to use the bathroom, or playing with children, for example.

The shorty feet project was the center’s first 3D printing-related assisted device endeavour, and it has since developed a number of other innovative devices to fit people’s needs.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

“We’ve made more than 100 unique devices to enable activities that able-bodied people often take for granted,” said Liacouras. These include more complex devices such as the shorty feet, as well as simpler items like a 3D printed cellphone or cup holder for a wheelchair.

In addition to assistive devices, the 3D printing center is also tasked with researching and producing medical devices, such as surgical planning models, customized dental implants, skull plates, and more.

One notable project that Liacouras highlights involves 3D scanning soldiers’ faces before they go to war. The 3D scans would be compiled in a database and if the unfortunate should occur and the soldier’s face is disfigured or injured in a blast, his or her 3D scan can be used in the reconstruction process.

“The face is the most complicated region to reconstruct and, of course, it’s what everyone sees every day,” Liacouras explained.

Out of all the military’s uses for 3D printing, the work of 3DMAC is probably the most compelling. “Whatever our wounded warriors need, we’ll create,” concluded Liacouras.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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