From scanning to 3D printing: the workshop goes digital
From scanning to 3D printing: the workshop goes digital
"Our world today is becoming more digital both in the personal and business realm. Digital transformation affects many industry sectors – and the orthopedic industry is no exception," says Niklas Hohlfeld, Prosthetics Market Management, Otto Bock HealthCare Deutschland GmbH. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly accelerated the pace of this development. Otto Bock and Mecuris GmbH explain how this affects their respective companies and describe the workshop of the future.
Service is a top priority at Ottobock: In addition to options for 3D scanning and printing of individually manufactured aids, their iFab platform also includes personal consultation and training on the software solutions offered.
You can't stop progress. The pace of progress? Well, that's another story but nobody's going to stop it – and eventually it affects all industries. And that's a good thing. Just take the example of stair-climbing wheelchairs. Before 2016, stairs seemed an insurmountable obstacle for people in a standard wheelchair.
Innovation starts with an idea
There are lots of assistive technology systems, but many go unused. That's not just because people don't know they exist, but also since the device development sometimes does not reflect the reality of users' lives. Robert Riener, Professor for Sensory-Motor Systems at ETH Zurich, wanted to change that. He initiated and organized the CYBATHLON and brought new energy to the industry. This is a competition where people use assistive technologies to compete against each other at tasks of daily life. It has created a platform where people with disabilities, technology developers, and the general public have the opportunity to exchange ideas, promote dialog, and share information on useful technology. Not surprisingly, 5,000 spectators witnessed the first CYBATHLON in the SWISS Arena in Kloten near Zurich. The event has also raised awareness for the daily challenges faced by people with disabilities.
One of the CYBATHLON success stories is Scewo AG. What began as a graduation project idea turned into a project team of ten students from ETH Zurich and the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Two years after the initial idea, the team participated in the CYBATHLON with an advanced prototype. Three members of the original team subsequently went on to launch Scewo AG and showcased their Scewo Bro at the REHACARE trade fair in 2019. It wasn't the only time their invention sparked huge excitement. Ever since, the power wheelchair has undergone continuous improvement. In our video interview in April, Junior Marketing Manager Natalie Rotschi told us the Swiss start-up is also working hard to obtain a so-called German "Hilfsmittelnummer" (aid number) which will make it possible to get the product funded by German insurance providers as funding for medical aids is only possible if the product is listed in the medical aid’s directory.
The CYBATHLON is just one example that drives innovation forward. Five years after the first event, some ideas have since evolved into serial production. While it's true that innovations – initially – cost time and money, the technologies will become (more) affordable for users over time – as is evidenced by Scewo Bro and many other similar developments.
Digital solutions are an extension of the workbench, not a replacement
The individual work steps involved in creating assistive technology devices are also changing. One example of this is the digital orthotics workshop like the Mecuris Solution Platform (MSP). The MSP was developed by orthopedic technicians for orthopedic technicians. It takes a short product demo, and a 90-minute training session and you are ready to create fitting orthoses without any prior knowledge of the usual software or 3D technology. The Munich-based company deliberately focused on the simplicity and intuitive usability of its platform. Peter Fröhlingsdorf, CEO and a certified orthopedic technician himself, explains: "The process must be quick and easy because this is a key requirement of the job of an orthopedic technician. We at Mecuris help specialists to meet this requirement." The MSP has other benefits besides its usability aspect. "We provide a web-based platform that enables technicians to upload, process and download everything they need," says Fröhlingsdorf. No data is being stored. Users simply call up the platform, log in and get started.
Ottobock likewise wants to make the care process easier and more efficient. With iFab – short for "individual fabrication" – the company from Duderstadt has developed a digital platform covers multiple process components "starting with the initial scan of the residual limb (stump) after amputation, 3D printing to produce parts, all the way to digital gait analysis and rehabilitation progress monitoring," explains Niklas Hohlfeld. Thanks to digital process solutions, custom orthotic fabrication, and on-site technical repair service, iFab is in effect an all-round carefree package. "This frees up time for what is really important: on-site patient care at the medical supply store," says Hohlfeld.
Despite advances thanks to digitization, Fröhlingsdorf wants the medical supply store to remain the go-to destination when it comes to assistive technology. "I believe it's important that increased mechanization and digitization helps orthopedic technicians to expand their knowledge. However, technology will never replace the human technicians in this field. It is merely an extension of the workbench."
Orthopaedic technicians don't have much time to try out new digital applications in their daily work – but this is different in the home office.
How the global pandemic gives digitization a boost
The coronavirus pandemic and the correlated close contact restrictions have intensified interest in digital solutions. Normally, an orthopedic technician doesn't always have time throughout the workday to test the latest innovations, gain experience and put them through their paces to determine if they should be integrated into the typical workflow. That has changed over the past year. "It was evident that orthopedic technicians took the time to consider digital alternatives," says Fröhlingsdorf. He adds that "working remotely is great, but nobody has a plaster room in their home." Orthotics typically means the technician creates a plaster casting of the respective body part to physically manufacture an orthotic at the workshop before he or she adjusts the device ahead of the final fit check.
The digital workshop has yet another advantage amid the pandemic: All that is needed is a 3D scan instead of a plaster cast. This relaxes the direct, close contact with the customer. All further steps of the orthosis production up to the final fitting or delivery – potential (posture) corrections and model creation including the final design – can easily be done digitally from anywhere thanks to MSP or iFab. All it takes is a computer and an internet connection. Uploading the 3D scan to downloading the finished 3D print file takes less time than creating a plaster casting and manufacturing the device in the physical workshop. The time that the orthotic blank takes to print can be invested in fitting more patients and thus the technician's expertise can be used even more effectively.
What's more, you can create unlimited additional copies of a digital orthosis and make adjustments at any time. This also means less physical waste. Digital manufacturing saves both time – which benefits the patient – and material, making it yet another incentive for embracing the digital workbench.
"Orthopedic technicians will gradually get over their fear of digitization as they learn to appreciate its advantages. It is one reason we at Mecuris focus on usability and ease of use as this helps to overcome resistance and skepticism toward using software," Peter Fröhlingsdorf is confident. So far, Mecuris has always had a nose for success. The Ottobock Company is also certain that digitization will change the way orthopedic technicians do their job in the future: "The job's mechanical component will continue to be relevant. However, it is switching over from purely analog processes such as plaster casting to digital processes such as modeling the patient scan on the computer," Hohlfeld shares his confident outlook for the future.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com