Science for the benefit of people. All people. Worldwide.
Paul Breedveld and his team study nature to find clever biological mechanisms which can be adapted to function in medical instruments. Breedveld has become increasingly interested in the intricacies of the design process itself. “How does nature go about designing and how does it differ from the way us humans design? Would it be possible to automate the designing process itself? Can creativity be automated?” That is precisely one of the major innovations that have come out of the TU Delft Global project: 3D printed prosthetics, supported by a smartphone app. “We are going to automate the design process of prosthetic limbs by means of a smartphone app. In scientific terms that is nothing short of a revolution.”
This particular TU Delft Global Research Fellowship project was the outcome of a brainstorming session between the four project members: Breedveld, Zadpoor, Smit and Plettenburg. The latter two are experts in the field of prosthetic arms and hands. Smit: “Most universities have made one or several robotic arms. But a prototype is as far as it gets and there’s no end-user benefit. Our challenge is to put the patient centre stage from the start and make prosthetics that are actually used. It’s a unique approach which few universities around the world share.” What is more, the present research into prosthetics is geared mainly towards the small number of people in the world who lost an arm. “We’re talking about the Western world, or to be more precise, the richest countries in the Western world. Meanwhile there are many more people in poorer countries who have to get through life without a hand or a foot.” These are the people Smit and Plettenburg want to focus on. But not in the usual way.
The manufacture of prosthetic limbs requires a comprehensive infrastructure: trained staff and well-equipped and maintained work facilities. While that is not a problem in the West, providing a similar infrastructure for developing countries would prove prohibitively expensive. What, then, can be done? Zadpoor specialises in 3D printing with biomaterials. “What you can do is to look at the problem from a different angle and see what can be achieved by using so-called ‘disruptive technologies’, such as 3D printing, mobile computing and design automation. Some of these technologies are turning the world upside down. All of a sudden the specialist is replaced by a smartphone app!” The patient no longer has to visit a clinic to have his stump measured but can make pictures of it himself with a smartphone. Based on the picture the app produces a design of a well-fitting prosthesis which is sent to a 3D printer via the internet or a local network. Then, at the push of a button, the prosthesis is printed. The next step is to deliver it to the patient who becomes the recipient of a custom-made artificial limb whose design and production are the results of a fully automated process. “This can have a huge impact on the lives of people who have lost an arm in a developing country.”
“There is plenty of stuff that developing countries don’t have access to. But many people have mobile phones, even smartphones,” Breedveld adds. “The biggest challenge is to provide them with printers and printing materials. That is why we’re going to enter into a partnership with the Movendi Foundation which works to improve the lives of people with an impairment in the developing countries. They are involved in a number of projects all over the world.”
Co-workers: Gerwin Smit, Amir Zadpoor and Dick Plettenburg
Global Research Fellowship
Creating well-working, custom made, easily manufacturable prosthetics
3D printing, design automation, advanced smartphone apps
Movendi Foundation, International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics