Garrett Harmon

Preparing O&P clinicians for the transition to 3D printing

September 20, 2019
By Garrett Harmon

While additive manufacturing offers significant advantages to the O&P industry, many clinicians are reluctant to adopt this new manufacturing technology. This is largely due to some common misconceptions about additive manufacturing or experiences with outdated technology.

In a mostly artisanal, bespoke industry it can be difficult for clinicians to trust a technology to build O&P devices with the same strength and quality as those that have been handmade for years. However, using handcrafted processes means that it can take days or weeks for patients to get outfitted with a prothesis suited to their individual needs. This is where 3D printable prosthetics can be a game changer.

It’s important to note that 3D printing is not designed to replace clinicians. It is meant to enable them to create prosthetics and orthotics faster, cheaper, and better than ever before; and to make these devices more accessible and affordable for many more people. By offering a higher level of care to a greater number of people, 3D printing has the power to deliver a happier and healthier life for patients everywhere.

Embracing 3D printing to expand O&P practitioners’ creativity
The creativity and expertise of O&P clinicians is the backbone of innovation in the O&P industry. Additive manufacturing is the perfect complement to this creativity. While traditional manufacturing methods have been around for many years, they have the potential to limit a clinician’s creativity. This is because they have been designed to accomplish success with specific design challenges. They are perfect for exactly what they do. Once a new design or a new method of treatment surfaces, they fall flat and require hard problem solving and complicated workarounds to function as intended.

Additive manufacturing truly allows clinicians to explore every solution. Whether the solution requires new materials, new designs, or complicated builds, additive manufacturing inherently allows for ease of manufacturing no matter what the clinician designs.

Developing new skills and knowledge
As additive manufacturing becomes more prominent in O&P, clinicians will need to develop skills that allow them to stay relevant but also to utilize the medium successfully. While there will be a few, the main skills will be material knowledge and design for additive. Additive manufacturing takes advantage of a very large range of materials with many different properties. If a clinician has the desire to utilize additive to unlock the potential of their creativity, then they will need to stay up to date with new materials and their properties to properly decide which material can provide the solutions they are looking for. Likewise, designs will need to be adjusted slightly so that machines can create them reliably and with high strength, consistently.

Currently there are a few universities and technical programs that are incorporating additive manufacturing into their curriculum. Additive manufacturing will only become more relevant, and as more patients require O&P devices over time additive is the perfect solution. Including additive into curriculum will require teaching students about scanning patients using a 3D scanner, CAD training to teach students how to build devices in a 3D digital space, material knowledge to select the correct material for any use case they may see, and finally knowledge of the overall technology so students understand how additive manufacturing works and when to utilize it correctly.

Early adopters are already benefiting from 3D printing
Early adoption of additive manufacturing in the O&P industry is occurring right now, and many clinics are benefiting from the advantage. Early adopters get to set the pace of the industry and are seeing not just better patient outcomes due to more consistent design and manufacturing process but are also seeing an increase in patient volume. As a machine produces devices, clinicians are free to see many more patients and sustain a larger patient base reliably. In addition to these great benefits, these flagship clinicians are the first to create and test many new materials and designs that the O&P industry has not seen before, taking advantage of these and leading innovation in the O&P field.

About the author: Garrett Harmon is an applications engineer for Essentium Inc.