Newcastle expertise leads research on 3d printing of foot orthotics

Peacocks Medical Group are working with researchers from the University of Newcastle and Glasgow Caledonian University

Glasgow Caledonian University's professor Jim Woodburn
Glasgow Caledonian University's professor Jim Woodburn

Pioneering medical products produced using 3D printing techniques are to be developed using North East expertise.

A partnership project involving city centre-based Peacocks Medical Group, the University of Newcastle and Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has been awarded £77,000 funding to design and manufacture foot orthotics using the revolutionary printing technology.

Orthotics is the medical field which deals with the design and prescription of orthoses – devices that are worn to assist, prevent or support skeletal and muscular movement.

With Newcastle engineers at the helm, the team will work on the ‘FootFEMan’ project which uses a computational engineering tool called “finite element analysis” to improve the functional design of orthotic devices.

Finite element analysis can help to identify points of weakness in a design before it is manufactured by modelling various stress tests.

The FootFEMan team will use the improved design – personalised to individual patients – to 3D print the devices, layer by layer.

Peacocks are leaders in the field and last year produced the world’s first 3d printed orthoses. Experts from the firm have spoken about their work at global conferences.

A team of five full-time engineers and one technician from Peacocks are working on this latest project which builds on their previous achievements.

Peacocks’ operations director Steve Cook said: “This latest collaboration looks to further optimise the design of orthoses by combining detailed engineering processes with the benefits of 3d printing.”

Podiatrist David Eardley explained: “Orthotics used to be about using moulded designs and wedges to block certain types of movement. More modern thinking is about working with a person’s movement to treat the condition.”

He added: “The ideal would be for a patient to arrive at a clinic, have their feet scanned, and then use software to print them a suitable device on the spot. We’re some way off from that stage, but it’s what we’re working towards.”

Newcastle University’s Professor Kenny Dalgarno and Dr Javier Munguia have worked in the field of 3d printing for some 15 years and will also lend their expertise to the scheme which runs until April this year.

Mr Dalgarno explained: “Patients are all different ages and body types – and may be at various stages of disease. This project is about finding a way to optimise the manufacture of orthoses for individuals.

“Peacocks have done a tremendous amount of work in this field and now we’re looking for ways to scale up the manufacturing of these devices.”

Some 200 million European citizens suffer from disabling foot and ankle conditions and more than €300 million per year is spent treating many people with orthoses and splints.

Traditional manufacturing techniques for these products are slow and costly. As part of an international consortium, the FootFEMan team have already established automated techniques under their €5.3m A-FOOTPRINT project which operated 2009-2013.

Ageing population means the global market for custom foot orthoses continues to grow.

Professor Jim Woodburn, of GCU, said: “We are confident that we can successfully 3D print new orthotic insole devices. This project will now enable us to improve each orthotic tailored to the individual patient according to whatever foot problem they have.

“We will test the new products in controlled clinical studies here at GCU to see if we can improve foot function during walking and further lessen disabling foot symptoms.

“GCU’s collaborative partnership with Peacocks will enable them to maintain and grow their market position as the leading SME developing innovative and knowledge-based orthotic products.”

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