Natasha with her 3D printed prosthetic, above, and the final, Visijet Clear fairings, below.
Without a doubt, the most important aspects when it comes to designing a prosthetic limb are its mechanical and biomechanical functionality, durability, and affordability. Amputees need something that works and that suits their individual needs—forget about the bells and whistles. Luckily, 3D printing technology has already brought huge advancements to the field of prosthetic development and manufacturing, allowing scientists to engineer lightweight, affordable, customized and biomechanically optimized devices to improve the quality of life of those in need.
So, once all these basic functions have been met, its time to move up the hierarchy to more personal needs, such as improved aesthetic appearance and the kind of personalization that can help an amputee regain their individuality and sense of self. Once again, 3D printing technology is making this easier and more affordable. A pioneering collaboration between 3D Systems, Thinking Robot Studios, Geomagic Freeform software, and Canadian art graduate Natasha Hope Simpson has led to an innovative, artistic, and affordable way to mass customize and locally produce prosthetics and prosthetic fairings. The team recently unveiled their design process and product vision in a live webinar.
The story began in 2013, when Nova Scotia resident Natasha Hope Simpson was injured in a hit-and-run accident and lost part of her left leg below the knee. Though she was fitted with a functional prosthetic leg and foot, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) graduate wasn’t happy with how it looked visually. “I wanted my symmetry back, I wanted something that flowed the design of my body and my natural design,” said Simpson. Rather than seeing her amputation has a disability, she chose to see it as a “negative space” that was now a part of her body, and that through her artistic vision, she could actively re-design. “It was very therapeutic for me.”
The making of ‘A leg that Fits’
Simpson then connected with Gregor Ash, Director of the Institute for Applied Creativity at NSCAD, Michael Fanning, CEO of 3D Systems partner NovaCAD, and Kendall Joudrie, CEO of Thinking Robot Studios, an up and coming robotic design studio also from Nova Scotia. The team was given a veritable challenge: to custom engineer a leg that fit within just two weeks.
Simpson immediately went to work at Thinking Robot, joining a team that included engineering interns from the local university. Although she had virtually no prior experience with computer design software, 3DS’ Geomagic Freeform, a multi-purpose 3D sculpting design platform, proved to be easy and intuitive for the young multimedia artist to master—especially thanks to the Geomagic Touch haptic device. With force feedback and six-degree-of-freedom input, the device adds a level of physicality, the sensation of hand sculpting, and dramatically reduces the learning curve of working with CAD.
The Geomagic Haptic Touch Device
“When I press the pen up against the clay piece on the screen, I feel a resistance. It’s been really sweet going from working on pen and paper to 3D design on the computer with this, because it’s made the transition that much easier. I get to understand what I’m working on in front of me in a more tactile way,” said Simpson. She said that within just six months, she was comfortable with computer designing.
In the webinar, Simpson explained how she took an anatomical sketch of a leg’s muscles and veins and, using Geomagic’s range of tools, deftly carved an organic and detailed surface pattern onto the front and back shells of her prosthetic. During the live demonstration, she used clay carving and mirror clay tools to compare a 3D scan of her intact right leg to a scan of her left leg’s prosthetic, and imposed the anatomical sketch on the latter. Her artistic inspiration came from another 3D printing artist, New York’s Melissa Ng, whose 3D printed whimsical, fantastical masks have previously been featured on 3Ders.org.
Screenshots of the design process within Geomagic Freeform
Once she was happy with the design, it was time to turn it into something functional. The engineering interns stepped up to help create an attachment system to attach the re-designed covers to the actual prosthetic. Next came the 3D printing.
The 3DS team used Visiget SL Clear, a class 6-capable material that is renowned for its clarity, value in aesthetics and functionality, for the final iteration (the prototype was printed in an opaque SLA plastic.) Over the course of 12 hours they printed a total of eight individual parts on a ProJet 7000 SLA 3D printer, using 3DS’ cloud manufacturing services, Quickparts.
In order to achieve the textured, detailed design based off of her anatomical sketch, Simpson 3D printed the design as an emboss image, spray painted the covers white, and then gently wet sanded the top layer off. The result is part white, part translucent, with shading that accentuates Simpson’s design.
Since the success of their prototype and final model, Simpson and Thinking Studios have been working to take their concept to market, with the aim of providing a range of prosthetics and prosthetic fairings to a mass audience, but customize to each person’s individual needs. Their goal is to sell it directly to the consumer, reducing costs and improving accessibility. Though no price has been mentioned, they do hope to bring their product to market within the next six months.
According to Ash, the team has also been working on a universal mounting system that, although currently top secret, will allow wearers to have multiple iterations of a prosthetic fearing. Ideally, amputees like Natasha could wake up in the morning and have several different ‘plug and play’ prosthetics to choose from, each reflecting a different mood, personality, or trend—just like picking out your shoes in the morning.
A variation of Natasha’s prosthetic leg, via CBC news
It’s one thing to have a functional prosthetic that can help amputees regain a sense of control and mobility. However, with 3D printing technology, there’s no need to stop there. By allowing people to restore a part of their personality—to reclaim their negative space—Thinking Robot Studio, 3D Systems and Geometric Freeform software and Natasha Hope Simpson are on the path to changing how non-designers can be directly involved with 3D computer design, and how prosthetic limbs can be just as functional as they are personalized, meaningful, and evocative works of art and design.