“I know if it works, it will be a huge relief for us.” Simon, Orthopedic Workshop Manager
CURE recently purchased a 3D printer with the help of Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Along with lessening the cost of the printer by getting us a discount and donating some software that was needed to help run the printer, they also sent a team of students and faculty to train on how to use the printer!
Now, you might be thinking: Umm, a 3D printer? This sounds a bit futuristic and scary. What could CURE possibly do with one of these?
The idea of 3D printing does seem a bit obscure and unknown. But, we recently had the privilege of sitting down with Dan, one of the team members from Messiah College. Dan is a senior, and he is majoring in biomedical engineering. Dan was able to help us understand more about the printer:
“Basically, it works like a regular printer, but it also has a Z axis (along with the normal X and Y axis’s) so it can print up and down too. It works like a glue gun. The material (plastic filament) comes through a hot tip and builds upon itself, layer by layer. It bonds to itself.”
While the team was here, they started test-printing leg sockets for prosthetics (the rest is still assembled manually). From our experience and what Dan explained to us, here is the basic print process:
- Scan the person’s leg with the portable scanner
- Fabricate the socket from the scan in a certain software
- Attach the socket adapter in another software
- Send to the slicing software to modify print settings
- Put the ready image on an SD card which is then inserted into the printer
- From here, the image is selected and the printer goes to work printing the socket
It should take an hour and a half or less to prep the scan before it is sent to print. Dan told us that the average length of time it takes for something to print is 25 hours for an adult and 12.5 hours for a child.
Before our sit down with Dan, we also had the chance to talk to Simon, who heads our ortho department here at CURE Kenya. We asked him how the printer will change things for our ortho team:
“Let me say two things: first, the cost effect. It’s going to knock off the cost… second, it will knock off the time it takes to make the prosthetics.” With the manual way of measuring prosthetics, CURE had to take a negative cast and create the socket this way. They would ask patients to return after two weeks to be fitted for their prosthetic. With the new 3D printer, they can scan the patient’s stump, prepare the scan, and print the socket overnight. They could possibly ask the patient to come back the next day for a fitting!
Another benefit that Simon told us about has to do with the accuracy of printing: “The margin of error will be reduced. We use measuring tape, and we have to use what you call the ‘orthopedic eye.’” The orthopedic eye refers to an orthopedic technologist’s judgment used during the measuring process. As fantastic as our team is, it is just the nature of things that the margin of error tends to be higher when one measures manually.
We found out that the scanner used to take measurements is also portable! This means that it will be possible to take it on our mobile clinics and take our patients measurements there! And because at this time we only measure about six to ten patients every month for prosthetics, taking the scanner on mobile clinic and away from our workshop won’t be too big of a deal.
And if all of that isn’t enough, get this: the cost of 3D printing is way cheaper than making prosthetics manually. For one thing, there is no longer a need to import polyurethane sheets to wrap over the plaster impression, the “positive cast”. The total cost for the plastic filament used to print one socket is 750 shillings. The old cost is 15,000 shillings. This basically translates to $7.50 vs. $150! Now one thing to consider is that in the old sockets, a soft insert was put into the bigger socket for comfort’s sake. The new sockets do not have this. CURE may have to consider putting a soft socket inside the 3D printed one. This will raise the cost, but the price will probably still only be half of what it used to be.
There are still some things that are up in the air, such as electricity costs, durability, and how the socket holds up under a person’s weight. And things are not quite ready to roll out yet. Some paperwork still needs done. Patients will need to give consents. This will take time. But hopefully sometime in the near future, we can begin testing out the sockets on our patients, starting with our kiddos
If all goes well, the impact on our patients will be significant. Because production costs are less, this means that we will be able to help more people receive prosthetics. It will save us time and our patients’ time in receiving their prosthetics. And eventually, we’ll be able to hopefully make other things like orthotics and hand prosthetics. As far as pretty’s sake goes, the prosthetics will look better too!
You can pray with us that this will all work, and well too. We’re thankful for this opportunity to hopefully serve our patients better. And above all else, we hope that God gets the glory in this!