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.

XPRIZE launches contest to build remote-controlled robot avatars

Prize fund XPRIZE and All Nippon Airways are offering $10 million reward to research teas who develop tech that eliminates the need to physically travel. The initial idea is that instead of plane travel, people could use goggles, ear phones and haptic tech to control a humanoid robot and experience different locations.

Source: Tech Crunch

NASA reveals plans for huge spacecraft to blow up asteroids

NASA has revealed plans for a huge nuclear spacecraft capable of shunting or blowing up an asteroid if it was on course to wipe out life on Earth. The agency published details of its Hammer deterrent, which is an eight tonne spaceship capable of deflecting a giant space rock.

Source: The Telegraph

Sierra Leone hosts the world’s first blockchain-powered elections

Sierra Leone recorded votes in its recent election to a blockchain. The tech, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology,” said Leonardo Gammar of Agora, the company behind the technology.

Source: Quartz

AI-powered robot shoots perfect free throws

Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun has reported on a AI-powered robot that shoots perfect free throws in a game of basketball. The robot was training by repeating shots, up to 12 feet from the hoop, 200,000 times, and its developers said it can hit these close shots with almost perfect accuracy.

Source: Motherboard

Russia accused of engineering cyberattacks by the US

Russia has been accused of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted critical infrastructure in America and Europe, which could have sabotaged or shut down power plants. US officials and private security firms claim the attacks are a signal by Russia that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities.

Google founder Larry Page unveils self-flying air taxi

A firm funded by Google founder Larry Page has unveiled an electric, self-flying air taxi that can travel at up to 180 km/h (110mph). The taxi takes off and lands vertically, and can do 100 km on a single charge. It will eventually be available to customers as a service "similar to an airline or a rideshare".

Source: BBC

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”