How digital manufacturing is making prosthetics more personal

By Protolabs
Prosthetic limb manufacturers

Digital manufacturing is shaping the future of prosthetics and orthotics by producing more personalised and comfortable solutions faster and at a lower cost. It is also accelerating the development of new ideas through rapid prototyping to test new solutions.

Traditionally clinicians make prostheses and orthoses using manual processes because fit and comfort for the patient is the main aim.  While the industry is highly scalable, solutions are one offs since every patient has different needs and anatomy.

Solutions typically have functional parts such as joints, which are industrially fabricated, and areas that connect to the patient’s body.  Clinicians need to produce a solution that is both suitable for the patient’s size and strength and also has a comfortable connection with their body that can transfer and absorb force without discomfort.


prosthetic limb producer in UK

Prosthetic limbs

For a prosthetic limb the fitting process often relies on casting to capture the patient’s anatomy and then using this to build a mould by hand using composite resin. You then place fixtures and padding to complete the device.  The whole process takes time and involves several visits by the patient to get it right. 

For manufacturers, producing well-fitting prosthetics is expensive and needs highly skilled staff.  While some products are standard, most are still customised and are expensive to produce.  Faced with a demand for more complex products, but with less funding, healthcare providers need to make production more efficient.

This is where digital manufacturing can step in to reduce the number of processes needed and bridge the gap between the patient and the product.  It starts with a scan to capture measurements and the features required.  Using this information, the clinician and technician can customise and build high quality digital models that are ready for production.

Using this digital thread, the prosthetic is then manufactured, generally using CNC machining and/or 3D printing.  Both have their advantages with the former offering high precision parts that need no finishing and the latter able to create complex geometries that are simply not possible using other production technologies.

The result for the patient is a faster process with a more comfortable customised fit, while the healthcare provider would expect to save time and therefore money.  By automising much of the process, the health professional can also spend more valuable time with the patient to fit and optimise the device.

Digitilisation also opens up the development of new construction geometries and adapting these to meet a patient’s personal wishes for function and aesthetics.

Once approved, the design can be manufactured at the push of a button and if necessary reiterated and adapted quickly.  Using the more traditional casting method, the professional would often need to start again from scratch if there were any changes.


Faster prosthetic component development

A second area where digital manufacturing is helping the industry evolve is in the development of new ideas.  One of the primary concerns of many manufacturers in the medical industry is the time to develop new products for the market.

Prosthetic hand manufacturer

Digital manufacturing speeds up this process from initial CAD right through to final production. Whether you are seeking to improve the functionality of a part, such as a joint for example, or are developing a new concept, designs often need to go through several phases before they are ready for final production.

Typically, this involves checking:

  • that your design is manufacturable
  • the form and fit are right
  • that it provides the functionality you want
  • that it meets regulatory approval

This all starts with your CAD and it pays to pick design issues up at this stage to save yourself time and money later in the development process.  Protolabs automates this quoting and design for manufacturability analysis so that you can get a rapid sense check; if you need more help we also offer a consultative design service for injection moulding.

After this you will need rapid prototyping.  Depending on where you are with the development you may mix and match your production technologies. You may, for example, start with 3D printing or CNC machining for speed even though you know that you will manufacture the final parts using injection moulding.

Robotic exoskeleton made by Protolabs
Parker Hannifin worked with Protolabs to create a Robotic exoskeleton, saving their R&D team several months of development time.

It is best to find a supplier that can offer all of these technologies under one roof, because although you may start prototyping using 3D printing, you still need to design the prototypes with the final production process in mind.

At Protolabs we have worked with a number of prosthetic manufacturers to develop their solutions. A good example is our work with Parker Hannifin where we helped save their R&D team several months of development to bring its Robotic exoskeleton to market on time.

Digital manufacturing is changing the world of personalised medical care and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the development of prosthetics and orthotics.  Whether this is for customising artificial limbs for a faster and more comfortable fit or for developing new ideas or parts, find out how we can help accelerate a solution for your medical manufacturing team.

Digital manufacturing for the medical industry

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