Christopher enters a shady patio outside the doctor’s office. The 8-year-old is sporting his school uniform – red top, blue shorts – and a face full of focus. Time for a test walk.
Nearby, his mom and a doctor watch him slowly move forward. They like what they see. His right foot and ankle are wrapped in a new, lightweight brace made just for him four days earlier on an HP 3D printer. They peer particularly hard at Christopher’s right side – weakened by a stroke months before his birth.
His steps turn into a confident stroll. “That’s good!” his mom says.
“Look, his gait is really symmetrical,” the doctor says. “A bit quicker, mate!”
Christopher’s stroll becomes a jog in the Brisbane, Australia, heat. Then his jog becomes a sprint. Finally, his focus becomes a full-on grin.
“This is why we do what we do,” says Dean Hartley, a podiatrist and co-founder of iOrthotics, the Australian company that made Christopher’s brace and thousands more. “You see that smile on his face. Then you see the smile from the parents. It’s amazing.”
Hartley is spearheading an orthotics revolution, relying on HP Jet Fusion 4200 3D printers to manufacture tens of thousands of pairs of custom foot orthotics and foot-and-ankle braces each year to help patients in the U.S., Australia, U.K., Canada, China and Singapore gain the ability to walk or improve their mobility.
In fact, iOrthotics is one of the first orthotics companies in the world to transition its lab to 3D printing, replacing a traditional technique that produces pressed and milled polypropylene devices – a method that sends thousands of tons of scrap plastic to landfills. By comparison, the use of 3D printing for orthotics creates small amounts of waste, Hartley says.
“This technology – and what we're doing with it – has the ability to change the whole orthotics industry,” Hartley says.
“Walking or running, it’s something so simple, something so many of us take for granted. Then you see a patient who hasn't been able to do it properly, and you can actually change that for them. You see them experience something for the first time. It’s why we practice,” he adds.
3D-printed orthotics can be suitable for the treatment of foot pain and provide pain relief and walking support for people diagnosed with diabetes, arthritis, flat feet and other medical conditions, according to the iOrthotics website.
Launched in 2009 in Queensland, iOrthotics is a subsidiary of Healthia, which operates a network of more than 130 My FootDr Podiatry clinics, Allsports Physiotherapy and Extend Hand Therapy clinics across Australia. (Hartley also serves as the chief information officer for Healthia.)
By using HP Jet Fusion 3D printers, iOrthotics builds its braces bit-by-bit – adding individual layers of material each as thin as 100 microns, the thickness of a sheet of paper. This creates a customized fit matching the unique bone, tendon and muscle contours of a patient’s foot, Hartley says. The result is a lighter, more durable device.
3D printing also streamlines the time patients must wait for new orthotics, carving weeks or months off the old process and getting people back on their feet sooner.