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Nia Technologies Brings 3D Printed Prosthetics and Orthotics to Resource-Limited Countries – Interview with CEO Jerry Evans

Nia Technologies Inc. was established in 2015 as a Canadian not-for-profit social enterprise. Founded by Hope and Healing International, Nia specialises in the development and implementation of digital technologies, including scanning, modelling and 3D printing, to improve the efficiency of prosthetics and orthotics (P&O) production. The organisation focuses on children in low- and middle-income countries, as these regions face a significant shortage of clinical staff and facilities capable of producing such devices. In an interview with 3Druck.com, CEO Jerry Evans explains how 3D technologies can bring prosthetics and orthotics to children facing mobility challenges.

Millions of children around the world are affected by lower limb disabilities and, unfortunately, the majority do not have the opportunity to acquire devices that could help them walk. This need is compounded by the current shortage of trained clinicians who can provide custom-fit prosthetic and orthotic mobility devices. Traditional methods of making P&O devices are labour-intensive and involve making a plaster cast and hand wrapping materials. It’s time consuming and costly for families to attend multiple appointments, often travelling long distances to the nearest clinic. 

With its primary mission to improve the lives of children with disabilities living in poverty, Nia has developed a comprehensive digital toolchain known as 3D PrintAbility©. This toolchain combines both hardware and software components that enable trained clinicians to create customised P&O devices using 3D printers. Compared to traditional labour-intensive methods, it streamlines the manufacturing process and enables skilled orthopaedic clinicians to produce high-quality, custom-fit prosthetic sockets and orthotics faster and more cost-effectively than traditional methods.

In addition, Nia has developed a dedicated P&O design software called NiaFit©. Designed specifically for prosthetists and orthotists, it features an intuitive, user-friendly interface with a non-linear design environment, ensuring optimal usability and efficiency.

Interview with Jerry Evans

In an interview with 3Druck.com, Jerry Evan, CEO of Nia Technologies, explains how 3D technologies such as scanning and printing are bringing significant benefits to the production of P&O devices and how this novel technology is expected to contribute to global accessibility.

What is the significance of 3D scanning and printing technology for the prosthetics and orthotics sector?

CEO Jerry Evans

Scanning hardware allows clinicians to capture precise 3D measurements of a patient’s residual limb (in the case of amputation) and body parts (for orthoses). Scanning replaces plaster casts used in the traditional method of P&O production, making the process faster and more accurate. Typically, the higher the scanner’s resolution, the more precise the representation of limb shapes, leading to better-fitting prosthetics and orthotics.

Scanners are becoming more affordable and accessible. In fact, some tablets and mobile phones now incorporate scanning capabilities.

Although clinicians primarily use topical scanners for dimensional information, technologies such as MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays explore subdermal data. Integrating this information will enhance prosthetic and orthotic design and improved fit, comfort, and functionality.

Similarly, 3D printing technology is a game-changer in P&O device fabrication, revolutionising the industry. These printers act as automated assistants, producing intricate P&O devices with greater efficiency than traditional labour-intensive manual methods. Additionally, 3D printing reduces P&O production expenses. 3D printing enhances material utilisation and minimises waste, paving the way for more cost-effective P&O production.

Customisations tailored to individual patient requirements and the utilisation of lightweight materials ensure a superior and more comfortable fit. Furthermore, in regions with limited access to clinical facilities capable of manufacturing prosthetics, centralised 3D printing may be a meaningful alternative.  

Digital hardware tools like scanners and 3D printers are not just transforming the P&O industry; they are reshaping it. These tools make device fabrication more accessible, efficient, and adaptable, promising a future where P&O design can be tailored to individual patient needs with unprecedented ease and precision. This is not just a technological advancement but a revolution in how we approach healthcare and accessibility.

What challenges do you think need to be overcome to bring this technology to clinics and, therefore, to children needing prosthetics?

Many clinics are already using digital tools and 3D printers, but there is certainly room for improvement. Principally, 3D printers need enhancements to their usability and simplicity. Presently, they require numerous parameters to be configured and demand frequent maintenance. Consequently, P&O clinicians must possess a degree of expertise in 3D printing in addition to their primary skill set. This lack of familiarity with the technology is a barrier to its widespread adoption. Ultimately, the ideal scenario would be for 3D printers to emulate the molecular assemblers depicted in Star Trek, where a simple command from Jean Luc Picard yields his desired tea, Earl Grey hot, materialising instantly from the machine. Alas, that is not where the technology is today, but it is inching in that direction.

Additionally, the availability of user-friendly software for P&O design is crucial for the widespread acceptance of the technology. Integrating digital technologies into established clinical processes and providing comprehensive training for P&O professionals is imperative. These efforts aim to attain exceptional accuracy and precision in 3D-printed P&O devices, ensuring their suitability and effectiveness.

The P&O industry is just beginning to integrate digital technologies. Over time, early adopters will pave the way for broader acceptance within the field. As these technologies become more widely embraced, efficiencies in P&O device production will improve. This progress will enable clinicians to better meet the demand for P&O devices, benefiting both children and adults with disabilities.

Additive manufacturing has developed continuously over the last few years. Which innovations or technological breakthroughs do you consider to be particularly important for the fabrication of prosthetics and orthotics?

The field of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is undergoing continual enhancement. Progress is evident in various aspects such as precision, material compatibility and strength, printing speed, and cost-effectiveness. These advancements continuously improve prosthetics and orthotics, making them more comfortable, functional, and durable over the long term.

Improvements in capturing patient data through advanced scanning techniques and integrating it seamlessly into the design and fabrication process have enhanced the accuracy and customisation of prosthetics and orthotics.

The emergence of advanced technologies like high-end, powder-based laser sintering or MultiJet fusion 3D printers has significantly improved the precision and customisation of prosthetics and orthotics. With powder-based 3D printing, objects produced exhibit isotropic material properties, ensuring material property consistency in all dimensions. Consequently, prosthetic and orthotic devices designed for powder-based printers can leverage computer simulation tools to test and refine designs before production. This reduces reliance on iterative prototypes and mitigates errors in the fabrication process.

Machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence are now also starting to be integrated into the P&O fabrication process. These algorithms have the potential to streamline design procedures, automate specific tasks, minimise production errors and enhance the overall efficiency of 3D fabrication for P&O devices.

What impact do you think 3D printing technology will have on the accessibility of prosthetics and possibly society as a whole in the coming years?

3D printing technology brings significant benefits to the field of prosthetics, addressing challenges faced by traditional manufacturing methods. 

3D printing enables the creation of personalised prosthetic designs tailored to individual needs. These custom-fit devices not only enhance comfort but also improve functionality, ensuring a better fit for the wearer. 

3D printed prosthetics are also more economical than traditionally-manufactured prosthetics, making them accessible to a broader population, particularly in resource-constrained regions.  Moreover, the versatility and efficiency of 3D printing make it a valuable tool for providing rapid relief in emergencies and conflicts, ensuring that individuals in need receive timely and effective prosthetic solutions.

And finally, there is a well-recognised global shortage of trained prosthetic technicians.  3D printing in itself will not change that challenge; however, digital design and 3D printing of prosthetic devices dramatically increases the productivity of existing prosthetic technicians who use traditional manufacturing methods.  

Thus, 3D printing is expected to contribute to global prosthetic accessibility; and the most significant impact is likely to be felt in low- to middle-income countries, thus democratising prosthetic access across various demographics. 

Aside from purely medical and physical considerations, this technology promotes personal independence and confidence among those who would otherwise be immobile.  

3D printing promotes education and innovation by offering opportunities for STEM learning. Students can engage in design, engineering, and manufacturing processes, driving forward advancements in the field. 

Collaborative efforts within open-source communities further amplify the impact of 3D printing in prosthetics and orthotics, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and designs globally. 

In short, 3D printing bridges gaps, empowers individuals and transforms prosthetics from medical devices to personalised tools for a better quality of life. The impact extends beyond prosthetics, fostering a more inclusive and innovative society. 

Here you can find further information on Nia Technologies.

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