3D printer to help foot pain sufferers

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Media captionThe printers build up ultra-thin layers of plastic until a 3D object is created

3D printers are being used to produce insoles and splints which could help millions of people with disabling foot and ankle conditions.

A team at Glasgow Caledonian University is "printing" devices which are more supportive and quicker to make.

Normally, making foot and ankle splints is a long and laborious process - a model of the foot is made, often from plaster, then plastic is moulded around it by hand.

This process can take anywhere up to six weeks, with patients waiting in considerable pain.

Prof Jim Woodburn, a specialist in foot problems at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "Our goal is based on, for example, the Specsavers model so what we would like to do is ideally provide the patient with the device on the day."

Image caption The 3D printers can produce a range of devices to help patients, including splints

The team are using 3D printers to build foot and ankle supports with a new degree of precision.

This new manufacturing technology builds up layers of plastic which are just millimetres thick, until a 3D object is created.

The team use motion sensor cameras to measure the exact proportions of the leg or foot, and then produce insoles which are a perfect fit.

As the 3D printer can print out any shape, the team have been able to experiment with new designs, incorporating springs and joints which give the devices more flexibility.

Dr Scott Telfer, research fellow at the university, said: "It is all on a memory stick.

"As well as being able to keep the models for a long time we can also, if something isn't working quite right, modify the design slightly."

'Remarkable difference'

Cameron Mitchell suffers severe pain in his feet and ankles due to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

He said the new insoles had made a remarkable difference.

"The custom-made insoles really give me a lot of confidence when out walking," he explained.

"I was actually going to have an injection in to my heel and through having the insoles the injection is no longer necessary because the swelling has gone down so significantly.

"It has saved me being in plaster for a fortnight."

It is estimated that about 200 million Europeans suffer from disabling foot and ankle conditions.

The university is leading the £3m EU-funded study to see if revolutionary manufacturing techniques can help.

'Complete control'

Prof Woodburn said: "We want to make these products specifically for the patients' own impairment and walking difficulties.

"The most exciting part of the project is that the computer design is then transferred to a 3D printer.

"What we have is complete control of the manufacturing process."

The technology is surprisingly cheap - the 3D printer being used in the team's Glasgow clinic costs about £2,000.

Mr Mitchell said his new personalised insoles were far preferable to his older "hand-made" versions.

"It reduces the pain but the thing about it is the stability," he said.

"I feel I now have more confidence in the short distance I can walk."

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