Thursday, August 9, 2012

3D printing and robotic technology helping doctors help patients

3D printing technology has really given manufacturing a new dimension. Specially if you think in terms of  manufacturing small intricate parts that might be useful in small robotic devices. Although personally I never thought that one day 3D printing technology would help doctors help patients until, I came across this story.

2 year old Emma suffers from a rare congenital disorder called Arthrogryposis that is characterized by multiple joint contractures (shortening and hardening of muscles) and can include muscle weakness and fibrosis. Emma was born with her legs folded up by her ears and her shoulders turned in. As a result she could not move her arms and lift things like normal 2 year olds would.

So the solution was to give her arms some external help by an exoskeleton. Researchers at a Delaware hospital 3D printed a durable custom device with the tiny, lightweight custom parts Emma needed. She calls them her “magic arms.” Now this allows her to freely move her hands around and pick up objects.
'Megan Lavelle' Emma's mother came across the exoskeleton concept in a conference held at Philadelphia  for AMC (arthrogryposis multiplex congenita) families, Lavelle learned about the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton called WREX for short, an assistive device made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands.
Now the problem here was the original device was made for 6 year olds and was too bulky for 2 year old Emma to use it. So Lavelle met with the presenters, Tariq Rahman, Ph.D, head of pediatric engineering and research, and Whitney Sample, research designer, both from Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.

Now the challenge for Mr.Tariq and Mr.Whitney was to scale down the size of the parts and bring down the weight so Emma could use it in her everyday life. 
That's when a Stratasys 3D Printer came in handy for Mr Whitney. Now for those of you who don't know, just like a paper printer that prints on paper. A 3D printer actually prints out or rather manufactures 3D objects. All you need is a 3D CAD model of the object and a material, generally plastic. In this case the material used is ABS plastic which is also used to make Legos and is a pretty safe plastic to use.

The advantage of using a 3D printer here is pretty visible. Due to the ease of manufacturing, it is always possible to improve and update the design of the exoskeleton. Not only that, if any of the parts get broken, it could be easily printer out and replaced immediately. The benefit here is kids grow pretty fast and so the parts of the exoskeleton can be easily scaled up as and when needed.

Due to this innovation Emma and fourteen other kids her age now use custom 3D-printed WREX devices. Mr.Rahman explains, the benefits may extend beyond the obvious. Prolonged disuse of the arms can sometimes condition children to limited development, affecting cognitive and emotional growth. Doctors and therapists are watching Emma closely for the benefits of earlier arm use.

3D printing technology is now getting some really world application unlike before when it was only a  fancy toy for rapid prototypers and innovators.


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