3D Printed Orthotics: New Tools for Diabetics?

3d printing photo For those with diabetes, foot health can be incredibly important. Due to neuropathy caused by the condition, feet become particularly susceptible to sustained injury, with points of insensitivity becoming worn due to repeated pressure, and healing poorly.

The solution to this issue has, in the past, been custom-fitted orthopedic insoles, providing support and structure to prevent the insensitive areas of the foot from sustaining damage. However, these insoles are often costly, and must be custom-created for each individual. This, in turn raises a number of interesting questions: for one, which material is best? Likewise, how do we know if each insole is working for each individual, and how do we standardize treatment for diabetic neuropathy?

3D Printed Orthotics

The answer, interestingly enough, may lie with 3D printing.

Though many applications of 3D printing have previously been limited to hard-bodied designs, Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft–a German application-oriented research organization–along with a number of partnered industry specialists, have begun work on the production of 3D printed, soft-bodied orthopedic insoles.

Funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the research firm has created the software to produce 3D printed insoles, and the technology to analyze their effectiveness. In addition, the firm has begun production of prototype insoles, using a combination of thermoplastic polyurethane (a soft 3D printing material) and structural and mechanical analysis to guarantee effectiveness and standardization.

A challenge the firm has tackled successfully, is how to use a soft 3D printing material to adjust for the necessary rigidity and softness of an orthopedic insole. The answer was found in the dynamic shape of the material as printed: “First we think about structures — straight rods, crooked arms, or triangles, for instance — then we produce a computer model of them, key in the data for a particular material, and simulate how rigid the result is under pressure,” says one representative of the firm. “…By altering the structure type, we can precisely determine the rigidity of the insole.”

This development will allow for both greater application and flexibility for patients who require specifically tailored insoles, and will allow companies to produce insoles faster and more efficiently. To quote a representative of the firm, “On the one hand, the mechanical properties of each insole become readily apparent, which is something health insurance companies want. On the other, insoles can be produced at greatly reduced cost.”

Find Out More About Orthotics

According to sources, the software to create individually tailored orthopedic insoles is projected to become available in roughly two years. Prototype insoles have already been produced by Fraunhofer, and optimization in both the printing and analysis processes are currently underway.

Have questions about developments in the world of orthotics? Contact our office for more information — our knowledgeable staff are here to help you feel your best!

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