3D technology to shape future of our feet

Lucy Mason reports on how 3D printing is transforming the world of bespoke insoles to improve patient outcomes.

It is being used on the drug production line to print custom doses on demand, to create artificial limbs and by L’Oreal to print skin.

Even companies such as Google, Boeing and General Electric are using it to improve their production.

The technology behind 3D printing is going mainstream. And now it’s being used to help people with diabetes and arthritis.

Orthotics and Prosthetics specialist Aortha is working on a full launch of its pioneering 3D insole technology – Aortha OrthaPrint and Aortha OrthaFlex – in 2016.

The technology, which can print a pair of insoles in an hour, follows huge interest from around the world.

The insole product advance was unveiled at the BAPO (The British Association of Prosthetists & Orthotists) conference in Manchester in March and then at PAC (Pedorthic Association of Canada) and PFOLA (Prescription Foot Orthotic Laboratory Association) meeting in Vancouver in April.

Hugh Sheridan, CEO of ALG which includes Aortha, says the new technology will allow custom-made and more supportive insoles to be created six times faster than anything else on the market.

He says: “The 3D printing market is moving quickly. Our technology transforms the speed with which custom-made, multi-density insoles can be produced.

“The Holy Grail is the ability to accurately scan a person’s foot, send that scan to software that turns it into an orthotic model and then the technology to print it using a multi-density TPU thermoplastic insole with no wastage.”

The company’s new manufacturing technology builds up layers of plastic which are just millimetres thick until a 3D object is created.

Professor Nachiappan Chockalingam, Professor of Clinical Biomechanics at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Staffordshire University, agrees that 3D technology has a huge benefit for future healthcare. He is particularly interested in the way it can be harnessed to create prescription footwear and bespoke insoles to better help relieve lower limb pathologies and reduce ulcerations.

He and his team – which include engineers, scientists, rehabilitation medicine specialists, orthotists, physiotherapists, and podiatrists – are at the forefront of pioneering work to translate mathematical and numerical models they have developed into printed orthotics.

He says: “Over the past 25 years, the materials in orthotics have changed very little.  But I’ve seen orthotics evolve dramatically recently because of the changes in technology and 3D printing.

“My work in foot and ankle biomechanics involves working with some of the elite sports footwear brands. The changes in sports footwear in terms of design and materials have been innovative and are constantly evolving. It has long been a frustration of mine that the technology being used in sport has taken so long to trickle down into the world of prescription footwear.

“In the motor world, incredible technology is first seen in the likes of Formula One cars and it doesn’t take long for that to filter down to the cars bought by the likes of you and me. Until now, that transfer of knowledge has not happened in the medical footwear world.”

Professor Chockalingam is excited about 3D technology and what it means for the future.

He adds: “I’ve had a 3D printer in my lab for the past two years and been using it to print hard shell plastic. With Aortha’s technology we are now able to print softer materials and that is the future. I can now translate my research into various sections of the foot-bed and their different properties to match the patient.

“As a scientist, I like measuring things. I’ve got a team of experts performing mathematical modelling, computational analyses and experimental biomechanics.

“Five years ago we didn’t have the technology to make 3D printing a solution. We could measure and identify something and design a solution on the computer but the new 3D technology moves it to the next stage. We have now got mathematical and numerical models which can give us the material choice.”

The technology now makes it possible to measure the tissue properties in the sole of a person’s foot, make a model on the computer and identify the properties of that individual’s sole and insole – producing a precise printable density map and the ability to create a perfect insole for that patient.

The team at Staffordshire University are pioneering to translate the mathematical and numerical models derived from an individual’s foot into printed orthotics.

The technology, which is expected to be translated into products within the next 12 months, has huge implications for patients with diabetes or arthritis.

Professor Chockalingam explains: “Currently, a podiatrist or orthotist will take a cast of a foot to get an insole. But the material they use will be the same density across the entire insole.

“My team can map the difference between the front and back of the foot and then translate that into the perfect insole model for that patient. 3D printing is creating a new generation of insoles.

“This is technology that is not only for prescriptions or people with clinical conditions but could have a huge impact for everyone. At some point I can see bespoke footwear that can be printed to perfectly fit each individual.”