This week, German athlete Denise Schindler will become the first cyclist to compete with a 3D-printed prosthetic leg at the Paralympic Games. The sporting events, which begin today in Rio de Janeiro, not only showcase the abilities of more than 4,000 competitors, but also reveal a new class of next-generation prosthetics.
To Schindler, whose right leg is amputated just below the knee, the use of custom prosthetics is integral to racing. In previous competitions, she's raced with a hand-made, carbon-fiber leg that was specially adapted to fit her bicycle pedal, according to Dezeen. Four years ago, at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Schindler, who is now 30-years-old, won the silver medal for the women's road race. This year, she stands to take home the gold.
But the athlete is also competing for another cause: making prosthetic limbs more readily available to everyone. During all of her races in Rio de Janeiro, Schindler will be using a polycarbonate, 3D-printed leg made with a design software called Fusion 360. According to Autodesk, the 3D engineering company that created the tool, this newer alternative could make prosthetics cheaper, easier to build, and more customizable.
"My dream is to make better fitting performance prostheses accessible to all, so I am really excited about the results of this project," Schindler said.
"Ultimately, the number one most important thing about any prosthesis, and especially a sports prosthesis due to the amount of time spent training and competing in it, is comfort. "
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Even for Paralympians, the cost and time that goes into acquiring a prosthetic limb is tremendous. "Right now things still happen by hand and it takes a long time," said Paul Sohi, a product designer at Autodesk who worked with Schindler on her custom-made prosthesis.
Today, the price of a prosthetic leg can run between $5,000 to $50,000, according to New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. For a high-tech model, such as the C-Leg, which contains a mobility-inducing microprocessor inside of the knee joint, the total investment can cost a patient $70,000.
The prosthetic industry also comes with other drawbacks, like the fact that many devices have been made to fit men, and not women. "You used to have to weigh close to 130 pounds to wear a microprocessor knee. I could never get a microprocessor knee to even flex. The everyday walking foot used to start at a [size] 6," Scout Bassett, another amputee athlete, told Motherboard last year.
So to Schindler, the opportunity to test a more accessible prosthetic limb was an exciting one. Autodesk claims that Schindler's older racing legs took upward of 10 weeks to produce, and were profoundly expensive. But the company says their 3D version took just 5 days to design, refine, and produce, and cost only a quarter of the price.
Previously, technicians would cast plaster impressions of Schindler's leg, and craft a prosthetic design over the course of several weeks. With the help of Autodesk, however, all designers needed to do was 3D scan and render Schindler's right leg, and use a digital modeling tool to create a new racing limb. The company notes that 52 versions were produced before Schindler and the team settled on the right match.
Ideally, similar technology will help children with disabilities comfortably compete in their favorite sports. Right now, the price and hassle of prosthetics can be prohibitive to aspiring amputee athletes. Last year, PBS reported that a child-size prosthetic arm can cost $40,000, and is likely to become unusable once its owner outgrows it. But 3D design software could literally put new limbs into the hands of those who need them. Currently, researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology are working on a project called "e-NABLE," which pairs designers and kids with disabilities to engineer their very own fingers, hands, and forearms.
Whether Schindler's new racing limb will provide her with the necessary edge to win remains to be seen. But what's certain is that she's not just competing for herself this year. "The new technology is great for me, but my big goal is really to open up the sports world for the average amputated person," Schindler added.
"It makes a big difference if you have been amputated and you still have the chance to be active, to be self confident, to enjoy life and not to give up."
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