Robotic arm HERL
A robotic arm in a HERL laboratory
Researchers in Pittsburgh are exploring 3D-printed solutions to improve the mobility and function of veterans with disabilities.
A collaborative effort between the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the University of Pittsburgh and the Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, the studies have been conducted at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL).
In recent years, 3D printers have become increasingly useful to medics in the design and creation of prosthetic body parts. This group of researchers believe veterans who are without limbs could benefit from the same technology.
HERL’s 3D printers can print almost anything that can be designed on a computer, using plastic, metal or rubber.
In an interview with the US Department of Veteran Affairs, Dr Brad Dicianno, the Medical Director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and Garrett Grindle, HERL’s Assistant Director of Engineering, highlighted the excellence of 3D printers for fabricating highly customised parts that can be used for personalised assistive technology.
“The medical community has benefited greatly from 3D printing as a development tool,” Dicianno and Grindle said. “Most new medical device prototypes use some sort of 3D printing while they are in the development phase. It is possible that hospitals someday will have 3D-printing departments dedicated to making patient-specific devices of all kinds.”
Scientists and engineers have been using 3D printers for some time, but the media and general public have started to take notice more recently because of the introduction of low-cost and readily purchasable hobby 3D printers. As 3D printing becomes more common, patients are beginning to ponder 3D printing and experiment with DIY printers.
HERL has been using 3D printers to develop new technologies for more than 15 years.
“We work on new assistive technologies to help Veterans with disabilities participate more fully in their communities,” Dicianno and Grindle added. “Designing and fabricating new assistive devices is tedious and is done in an iterative process. Three-dimensional printing speeds up this cycle. Since it is easier to manufacture complex shapes with a 3D printer than with more traditional technologies, we can often make the devices function better and be more aesthetically pleasing.”
The HERL researchers insist they are not focussed on just one type of disability. Their research is geared towards people with a wide variety of conditions, injuries and amputations.
For amputees they suggest direct metal and composite materials, like carbon fibre, will change how components are designed in the long run.
Meanwhile, wheelchair users will benefit from more highly customised interfaces, such as cushions and arm rests, custom handles and buttons, making the wheelchairs easier to operate, and the emerging area of ceramics, which could improve bearing surfaces.
Dicianno and Grindle admit while 3D printing will never replace the need for specialists, the tools they use look likely to become more automated.