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The Utility of 3D printing


Although the idea that we might soon be able to 3D print organic tissue or even vital organs, the progress in this field has demonstrated that practically anything can be printed, varying from clothes to soft food for the elderly.

A few years ago, I was left deeply impressed and inspired by the graduate collection of the artist Úna Burke, who reinterpreted the gestures usually associated with the physical and psychological healing of injuries, by means of temporarily restricting movement. Thus, 8 sculptural works resulted, hand-worked in a beige-nude coloured leather, suggesting different prostheses and medical braces which almost appear to be natural extensions of the human body. After McQueen’s experiment in which he integrated the Paralympics athlete Aimee Mullins in his runway show, where she wore a prosthesis sculpted in wood, perfectly imitating a pair of high fashion boots, the point was reached where the practical implementing of such a project truly began.

3D printing accomplished this transition from conceptual, sculptural or couture pieces, to prêt-à-porter items. A good example is Alleles Design Studio, a company that considers that their designer-made prostheses, besides offering physical comfort, also insure a psychological relief, as people with disabilities tend to regard any prosthesis as a stigmata of ugliness. The designers involved in the project offer the possibility of creating a bespoke prosthesis much as an artistic work, to a price relatively small in comparison with what is currently to be found on the market. This is possible due to 3D printing, which considerably reduces manufacturing costs. Even if this is a niche market, the terrain must be constantly prospected, as technology evolves with such speed, that 3D printing expands every day to ever more varied fields.

In the same field but with a direct applicability in the healing process are the 3D printed orthoses, which manage to facilitate, control or limit the mobility of certain body parts in ways in which post-operatory splints or casts cannot. This involves a progress which enables a healing as comfortable and aesthetic as possible for conditions which are short or long-term, as for instance a broken limb or even scoliosis. Casts are so restrictive and uncomfortable, whilst these 3D-printed orthoses and prostheses allow for more flexibility without hampering the healing process and, what is more, they allow airflow underneath. These orthoses are manufactured individually, in order to fit each patient perfectly: first, X-rays of the injured limb are taken, after that a custom-made 3D plan is created, and in the final phase, a 3D printer produces a flexible orthosis, which does not irritate the skin and is washable. Thus, the convalescence period is made much easier to bear.

Bespoke Innovations, a company in San Francisco, has for some time now been printing “designer-made” prostheses, custom made to recreate symmetry where it is needed, through a process of art and design: the clients may choose out of embroidered leather, precious metal or even tattoo models for decorating their acquisitions in an original way. 3D printing allows for the design of the objects as a whole and avoids possible incompatibilities as for instance would happen when assembling several parts for one prosthesis. Thus, the design remains whole from the moment it is first thought of until the final step of product development, when it comes out of the printer. Scott Summit, industrial designer and founder of Bespoke Innovations, sums up the latest innovations of the field better than anyone else: “We typically think of design as design, and medicine as medicine, though in many cases, good design simply becomes good medicine.”

Thus, what is now left for us to do is to wait for the first transplant with a 3D printed organ, in which case, even if the design is predetermined by nature, a creation process similar to one an industrial designer would make is required. Although each phase from the sketch to the actual production of the object in its final form is important for designers, some will find that this purely technological process makes their work much easier by avoiding possible human “errors”. Algorhythms are more stable than scissors, so it is very likely that the future of design lies in codes, as much as it does in creativity.

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