The Quiet Revolution in 3D Printed Medical Prosthetics

It’s almost impossible to miss all the news about revolutionary 3D printers and genius engineers who have built 3D printed hands, legs and other body parts with complex articulated joints for a fraction of the cost of analog processes. However, there is a quieter revolution that’s been going on in the medical industry for years, which doesn’t get all the hype but has made just as great of an impact to people’s lives and the medical industry at large.

The Transition to 3D Milling

A patient’s ear, before (left) and after (right) the use of a prosthetic created with a 3D milling machine. Picture courtesy of the Medical Arts Prosthetics Clinic.

A patient’s ear, before (left) and after (right) the use of a prosthetic created with a 3D milling machine. Picture courtesy of the Medical Arts Prosthetics Clinic.

Prosthetic production used to be the domain of extremely gifted artists who handcrafted artificial limbs, ears, teeth and other prosthetic parts out of natural materials or by hand-making molds in wax or plaster for casting various thermoplastic, composite or synthetic materials. In fact, traditional methods and materials are still being used today, with a small minority of prosthetic providers fulfilling the role of craftsmen and intricately carving or casting pieces to exactly fit the patient. Unfortunately, handcrafting items is a very lengthy and expensive process for patients and the quiet revolution of digital technology and software over the last 10 years has fundamentally changed the industry.

Although 3D printed prosthetics make headlines, it has actually been CAD/CAM software and subtractive 3D milling technology – as opposed to additive printing – that has quietly advanced prosthetics production and brought it to the point where ultra-precise prosthetics and molds are now being created in a fraction of the time and cost, with greater detail and realistic quality.

The Value of 3D Milling

People afflicted by cancer, congenital conditions, or trauma seek help from places like the Medical Art Prosthetics Clinic in Dallas, Texas, who specialize in prosthetics for fingers, toes and facial features. Allison Vest, MS, an anaplastologist with the Medical Art Prosthetics Clinic, explains how new 3D methods have made her job much easier and more accurate.

3D milling examples of medical prosthesis ears by the Medical Arts Prosthetics Clinic, Dallas Texas

3D milling examples of medical prosthesis ears by the Medical Arts Prosthetics Clinic, Dallas Texas

“Before, I would heat a pot of wax and carve the ear by hand,” said Vest. “3D milling technology creates a mirror image of the patient’s existing ear with extreme accuracy, and allows me to focus on fitting and finishing the prosthesis. The milling accuracy is incredible. I use the .2 millimeter setting, which provides precise skin texture details.”

Allison Vest and the majority of technicians who create artificial ears, noses, fingers and other aesthetic prosthetics are now using computer software to digitally render prosthetics, and 3D milling methods to turn the data into realistic prosthetics. Although not as highly talked about as 3D printed parts, the switch from traditional methods of production to the digital milling of prosthetics has been massively significant in the lives of patients, lowering cost and time while improving accuracy.

Dental Prosthetics and 3D Milling

Possibly the most radical change in this quiet revolution of prosthetic production has been in the competitive world of dental prosthetics. For nearly a century, hand- crafting and casting of crowns and other prosthetics has been done in a multi-step procedure that includes dipping dies, waxing, spruing, and then casting. But over the last decade and especially the last 5 years, labs have evolved from an industry that relied on the skill of lab technicians, to a digital industry that utilizes 3D scanning and CNC milling to create prosthetics in a fraction of the time and cost.

Close-up of a CNC dental milling machine in the process of creating a prosthetic

Close-up of a CNC dental milling machine in the process of creating a prosthetic

Everything from crowns to bridges can be precisely produced in hours rather than days. The growth of CNC dental technology has also meant that US labs are able to compete again with an overseas market that had turned the craft of prosthetic making into a production line industry. Mark Jackson from Precision Ceramics Dental Laboratory in Montclair, California, explained how the industry has greatly improved since the introduction of 3D dental milling technology.

“These days, at least 30 percent of dental prosthetics production for the United States market is being carried out overseas because of cheaper labor,” said Jackson. “With CAD/CAM milling technology, we can compete on price and deliver products faster than labs overseas can.”

The Reasons Behind 3D Milled Prosthetics

It’s important to note that the artistic skill of prosthetic makers has not died out. There is still a need for artists to paint the fine details of ears, teeth and other items.  However, with the accessibility and affordability of rapid prototype milling machines, scanning technology and software, the process is faster, more affordable and offers a greater choice of materials than 3D printing. In addition, the technology is more accessible for patients. Impressions are less invasive, turnaround times are dramatically reduced, replacements can be provided very quickly, and there is consistency in the quality which was previously dependent on an artist’s individual skill.

The Future of 3D Prosthetic Production

Even though 3D printing technology is improving every day, 3D milling machines will continue to be the product of choice for many prosthetic makers. However, it’s undeniable that both 3D printing and 3D milling technologies have and are redefining the prosthetics industry by changing the lives of patients and creating exciting new tech opportunities. On reflection of the dramatic changes that 3D milling technology has caused over the last decade, maybe the revolution has not been so quiet after all?

Ben Fellowes is the Sr. Copywriter for Roland DGA Corporation, a technology company that specialize in large format printing, dental milling, 3D production and rapid prototyping machines. He loves art, punk rock, horror films, Sci-Fi, comic books, real beer, cooking and eating.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.