3D printing a new way of life for amputees

Artificial limbs are running hot off the press at Victoria University’s School of Design in Wellington – the 3D printing press that is.

Professor of Industrial Design Simon Fraser, along with his colleagues Tim Miller, Bernard Guy and an array of eager post-graduate students, are exploring ways of making bespoke artificial limbs more accessible for New Zealand’s 4,000 amputees – all with 3D printing technology.

The concept

A core focus of the team at the design school is the “emotional connection” between the limb and the user. They want a product that fits into New Zealand’s coastline and mountainous landscape, as well as the user’s lifestyle.

“The artificial limbs available now on the market are very functional, but tend to make people’s lives fit around the limb, rather than the other way round,” says Bernard.

“At the moment artificial limbs don’t represent who the person wearing it is or who they want to be, which is where the design comes in,” explains Tim. “We want people to have multiple limbs to fit around their lifestyle and for every amputee to be able to have a specialised limb, not just athletes.”

The tech

3D printing technology is in a state of perpetual development. With this evolution comes the potential for a greater range and functionality of limbs, as well as aesthetic. Over time, it is envisaged that 3D printing will deliver cheaper and more functional artificial limbs than what’s currently available.

The design school offers a range of post-graduate courses where students focus on opportunities to develop new concepts. So far, results are promising, with a ‘swim limb’ on its way to becoming suitable for production by the New Zealand Artificial Limb Service. The flexible swim limb, a cross between a human leg and a flipper, allows amputees to swim with ease in a straight line – as well as being able to walk to the pool with dignity.

The collaboration

Within his first week as chief executive of the Artificial Limb Service, Sean Gray picked up the phone and called the team at the design school. “I was really interested in how our work could align, particularly with our R&D strategy” says Sean. “As technology advances, it is clear we have to get creative in how we produce prosthetics. While there are still a number of barriers 3D printing has to overcome in this space, the potential benefits that it could deliver for our clients is huge.”

The New Zealand Product Accelerator, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, also jumped at the chance to support the project. Its Business Development Manager Brian McMath says they undertake R&D for innovative manufacturing companies grow their markets and scale – and this was an area that fitted the bill perfectly. “Bringing the design school and 3D printing capability into the Product Accelerator has really enhanced the way we can assist other companies producing products with this technology. It’s a truly ‘concept to market’ solution that we’re excited to be a part of,” says Brian.

The future

So what next in this ambitious project? This year the team will continue develop a range of design concepts, and getting the swim limb closer to production level. A line of aesthetic covers for limbs will also be commercially available in the latter half of 2017. It’s an exciting time for design school, as the potential for 3D printing to impact people’s lives is seemingly unlimited. As Simon and the team say, you can’t anticipate the full impact until you see it in action.