I caught up with W. Brent Wright of LifeNabled to learn more about one team’s mission to broaden access to prosthetics and orthotics via 3D printing.
Wright, an ABC Certified Prosthetist and Board Certified Orthotist, is the Board Vice President/Treasurer CP BOC/O of LifeNabled. 3D printing is enabling broader access around the world to customized prosthetics and orthotics, and LifeNabled has dedicated its service to putting advanced technologies to use in helping humanity.
The organization is working toward “a world where all amputees have access to affordable prosthetic care,” and the driven team are doing all they can to fulfill this vision.
What led to your becoming involved in prosthetics and orthotics?
“When I was in the 2nd grade I went to an Orthotic and Prosthetics Facility that was owned by a family friend. I was mesmerized by the way so many machines and hand tools were used to make a prosthesis and wanted to become a prosthetist and orthotist.”
How did your background as a Certified Prosthetist and Board Certified Orthotist lead you to 3D printing as a solution?
“In the developing world many people with amputations do not even dream of having a prosthesis. There may be access but it is not affordable. I feel as though 3D printing will not only create access but become an affordable solution for people worldwide.”
How and why did LifeNabled come to be formed?
“We have been a part of a Hospital Based clinic in the Northern part of Guatemala called Hospital Shalom since 2007. What we found was more and more people worldwide were asking for advice on how we were creating an affordable prosthesis without donated parts. We wanted to be able to have an avenue where we could serve the world and also have a vehicle for potential grants in the future. In 2015 we became an official 501(c)3!”
What steps are involved in the creation of each prosthesis? What technologies come into play throughout the process?
“The first step in creating a great prosthesis is to accurately capture the patient’s shape. This is the most critical part of the prosthesis, if you don’t get this right you run the risk of skin breakdown. We currently use a fiberglass casting method to capture shape and then if we choose we can digitize the cast via the Structure Sensor and DigiScan3D app that is used in conjunction with the iPad.
Currently with lower extremity prostheses it is still more cost effective to thermoform the prosthesis, however with upper extremity prostheses we are exclusively 3D printing them. When 3D printing we use a combination of software that includes: Meshmixer, Fusion360, Recap Photo, Simplify3D, KISSlicer, and Geomagic Freeform. One consideration when choosing software is we are not able to use software that requires a steady connection to the internet or that is cloud based. We are not guaranteed internet access and that is one reason why we developed the app DigiScan3D. With DigiScan3D as long as you are operating within the Mac ecosystem you can use AirDrop to get digital files off the iPad.
Next, the prosthesis is fabricated and we then have to fit it to the patient and make sure it is comfortable and that it stays on. Once that it done we have them train with it while we see other patients and if they have any issues that show up we are able to fix them.”
How do newer technologies allow for more affordable prosthetics?
“For lower extremity prostheses the reality is it is not necessarily more affordable, however it does allow the creation of a prosthesis without the need for a full lab of equipment. This makes the barrier to entry very low and allows for scaling easily.
For upper extremity prostheses we are literally able to take the material cost from 800-1000 dollars to about 15 dollars. That it the magic of 3D printing!”
What else can be done to bring costs down for those in need of prosthetics?
“We are working on some designs that are premade and this will allow for customization on site as well as fitting within a few hours. This will not work for some limb shapes, however it may cover a very big percentage of people.
The knee joint is a very expensive part of the prosthesis and we have been creating a new knee joint unlike any other in the world. We have used 3D printing for prototyping it and are now moving to milling and machining it. All patients that have used it are thrilled with the function and stability of it. We continue to test it and hope to have a production unit for a larger test by the end of the year.”
What are your hopes for your work with LifeNabled?
“Our hope is that we can support and guide like minded NGOs in avoiding mistakes we have made along the way. We truly want people to walk worldwide and we need all hands on deck to make that happen. To borrow from Simon Sinek, ‘Together is better.’ We are all on the same team and want to help people with amputations get the dignity they deserve.”
What should we know about your company and its mission and vision?
“Our mission is to Enable. Train. Serve.
We want to enable other organizations to better serve the population that they already serve. We want to train others to use technology and create cost effective solutions to get more people walking. Lastly, we want to serve. We want the experience for the patients to surpass all expectations they had, obviously we want them walking but we also want them leaving knowing they are loved and cared for.”
How do you see growth in 3D printing impacting the prosthetics market around the world over the next several years? In the longer term?
“I am super excited with some of the materials coming out. I have had the opportunity to work with Chemson with PVC, Village Plastics with some of the Polypro they are working on, Makeshaper with some amazing PETG, Push Plastic with their Carbon PETG. Very soon we will have some materials that do not need post processing that will be strong enough for daily wearing and put up with some of the environmental conditions in the developing world. In the longer term I see pellets becoming more mainstream and I see speeds increasing as we explore how the hot end actually converts solids into something printable.”