Breaking an arm and getting stuck wearing a cast is never fun. Not only are they usually big, heavy eyesores, but casts also tend to be made of non-breathable plaster or fiberglass, which leads to an almost unbearable itchiness and smell for the person wearing it.
Luckily, the ever-increasing use of 3D printing technology, especially in the medical field, has finally brought fracture support to the 21st century. 3D printed casts—like the Cortex Cast and the Osteoid Medical cast—are not only more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing than a traditional cast, they are also designed to be washable, ventilated (meaning that you won’t have to suffer through odor and itch), and are made of recyclable material.
The Osteoid cast, designed by Turkish student Deniz Karasahin and currently in prototype, is also equipped with a low intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS) bone stimulator system. This system promises to reduce healing time by 40 percent if used once a day for 20 minutes, and will increase the healing up to 80 percent in non-union fractures.
The benefits associated with these 3D printed casts are huge, but their design does lead to the loss the one fun aspect of a traditional cast: the ability to customize your cast with uplifting messages and drawings from your family and friends.
Enter #CAST (pronounced “Hash Cast”); a project developed by a 3D printing and rapid prototyping services studio called FATHOM that takes messages sent to your social media accounts and uses them to create a 3D printed cast that is literally made from these messages.
“While discussing the amazing benefits of the various 3D printed cast designs, we became very focused on the user’s experience from an interactive standpoint,” says Ava DeCapri, an industrial designer at FATHOM. “It’s classic to see personalized notes written in marker on a traditional cast. That’s when we realized a big part of the user experience was missing. We asked ourselves, how else could 3D printing uniquely aid in elevating a user’s experience?”
The answer to that question came in the form of the #CAST mobile app. Through the app, users access posts and messages left on their social media accounts (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) and choose the ones they want to be included in their cast when it is 3D printed. “Anyone from anywhere in the world can “sign” a person’s cast,” says DeCapri. “It has the potential to not only heal your arm more efficiently, but also uplift your spirits.”
Once the maximum amount of characters is approved, FATHOM uses 3D CAD software to turn these messages into a printable design that is an exact fit—based off a 3D scan done at a doctor’s office—to your arm. The cast is then printed out of a medical grade, breathable nylon material using laser sintering (SLS) 3D printers, shipped to the doctor’s office, and fitted to the user by a specialist.
Although this process sounds simple, it was in fact pretty challenging. The supportive structure of the case needs to remain strong enough to support the break point, regardless of what personal messages are chosen. The FATHOM design team uses paneling tools and manipulates control points based on the break point identified on the original scan to figure out the exact supportive structure.
“This method works well, as we are able to create denser letter groupings around the break, where more support is needed and airier sections where support is less crucial,” DeCapri explains.
The #CAST project, for now, is just a proof of concept, according to the FATHOM team. It was created to showcase the amazing possibilities of 3D printing. The team is speaking to physicians about getting it out of the studio and into real clinics.
3D printing: the future of fracture support?
With the #CAST, Cortex Cast, and Osteoid Medical cast all vying for mainstream adoption in the medical field, is it possible that in the future we will no longer see plaster or fiber glass casts? Some experts, like Dr. Brian Foster, an upper-extremity orthopedic specialist, aren’t so sure.
“The idea is interesting in the sense that you have a strong outer customized shell that can easily incorporate ultrasound to potentially increase bone healing,” Foster says, “but often casts are used to protect an extremity, and when people have the ability to take this shell on and off, we may lose that ability to protect the extremity, because we can’t guarantee that the shell is being worn at all times.”
Despite these concerns, it would appear that the pros of 3D printed casts, if they do come to a mainstream audience, may far outweigh the cons. And by incorporating the social aspect, #CAST can give individuals with broken bones a creative canvas to make the best out of a bad situation.
Photo courtesy of FATHOM