The medical field has truly started to embrace 3D printing. Scanning the headlines, one finds stories about 3D printing providing a cancer victim a new angle, a 3D printed heart that helped save a baby’s life and more. However, every story that ended with 3D printing, started with 3D scanning.

While 3D scanning can be used in a variety of ways within the medical field, orthopedists may be feeling the winds of change the strongest due to the nature of their work. Without 3D scanning technology, creating an artificial limb or brace requires a patient to be measured manually and a plaster cast to be created. The cast is then sent to a brace manufacturer. If the measurements or plaster cast didn’t come out perfectly, the results could end up with a brace that does not fit, which would require the process to be repeated. The use of a professional, handheld scanner is the most accurate way to creating prosthetics.

Out with the Old, In with the New
A process, that could take weeks, is drastically reduced with 3D scanning. Using the right 3D scanner and software, a CAD (computer-aided design) file can be created minutes after scanning. A full 360-degree scan takes 30 seconds at 15 frames per second (fps).The file can then be emailed directly to the brace or prosthesis manufacturer that will use a milling machine to create the orthopedic brace or prosthetic limb. The end product is then sent back to the doctor and patient. Orten, a French company that develops a complete solution for 3D computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) of prosthetics, uses Artec’s high resolution 3D scanners to get a patient his/her prosthetic the next morning after scanning.

There are more benefits to this process than a fast turnaround. Using 3D scanning technology captures information in second, without the safety risks that are associated with X-rays and MRIs. No radiation is involved when using a handheld 3D scanner. The scan can be done in a patient’s room, making it much more convenient.

The Beginning of the Transition
Doctors are naturally conservative. When a doctor has been trained to do a procedure a certain way and it has proven to have an affective outcome again and again, it creates hesitation to embrace a new method. However, with a new generation of doctors the digital approach will become common practice. There is not an abundance of orthopedists in the world, which could also further delay the transition. In the United States there are only about seven thousand certified O&P professionals. We are just at the beginning of this transition. As successful use cases of the digital process are shared from peer to peer the adoption of 3D scanning technology will undoubtedly permeate through the community. As this happens it will also create a demand for specialized CAD software. While it does currently exist, only 30 percent of orthopedists use it. Using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) deployment model, will make the use of the high definition, handheld scanners much more viable. In this scenario, a doctor or clinic only needs to pay $60 to $80 per prosthesis, the equipment would be maintained by its manufacturer and the software would be kept up-to-date by the CAD developer. This agreement between all parties would be profitable for everyone and increase adoption.

The Manufacturing Technology
A milling machine is a proven piece of technology and as mentioned before is being used effectively to produce prosthetics. However it does not allow for very small details. To print the small details that the 3D scanners are capturing will require the use of 3D printers. The industry is still searching for materials that can be used to 3D print prosthetics.

Due to the effectiveness of the use of digitalization in creating prosthetics, in a few years there will be no orthopedists who work with plaster. It’s now the old way of doing things. It’s messy long process and often times can be inaccurate. Although there are the hurdles mentioned above with the conversion to digitalization, these are common obstacles that will work themselves out as adoption increases. In the end it will create better experiences and prosthetic for the patient.