A typical prosthetic leg looks pretty utilitarian–a thin metal or carbon fiber pylon rod that, unsurprisingly, many amputees would rather hide under clothing than show off. But why shouldn’t prosthetics look as good as any other technology we buy? Working along with an orthopedic surgeon, designer Scott Summit came up with a 3-D printed custom fairing, a covering for a prosthetic that each customer can design themselves.
Someone with a tattoo can design an intricately carved fairing that matches. Or someone with a classic motorcycle can design a chrome fairing that looks almost like part of the bike. (The name “fairing” comes from a term used in motorcycle design). Suddenly, something that might have once been a source of awkward glances from other people becomes cool enough to get positive attention instead.
“It creates conversations,” says Chad Crittenden, who works on the fairings in the Bespoke division of 3-D Systems, a major company in the area of 3-D printing that acquired Bespoke Innovations, the startup Summit founded to make his custom fairing technology. Crittenden is a customer himself; he lost part of his right leg to cancer at the age of 33. “If I’m wearing shorts, and it’s this kind of snazzy, shiny thing that I’m obviously not trying to hide, people know immediately, okay, he’s not going to have a problem with me asking about that.”
Crittenden says it also changes how he feels. When he was first approached to be a beta tester for the design, he thought it looked interesting, but didn’t expect major changes–he was already living a public life as an amputee, after competing on a season of Survivor, and felt like he’d fully accepted having a prosthetic post. But when he took off the attachment after 10 days of testing, he missed it.
“I had a profound feeling of something being taken away and I was not expecting that,” he says. “Psychologically, symmetry had been restored. I wasn’t aware of that, but after the fact, I looked down, and I realized my symmetry was back. I wasn’t trying to cover up with some kind of skin-colored foam covering that it’s obvious isn’t real, but I was restoring the shape. It’s giving that symmetry back but not trying to hide anything.”
When designers work with a client on a new fairing, they start by getting a clear sense of the client’s aesthetics so they can create a unique design. Then, after 3-D scanning an existing limb, they create a shape based on the mirror image. It’s a complicated design process both because each shape has to fit a custom prosthesis, and because clients get heavily involved in the creative process, going back and forth on ideas.
Right now, a fairing costs around $4,000, though the company is working on simplifying the engineering to help bring the costs down.
So far, they’ve made custom designs for about 100 people. Crittenden says they’re continually learning of new benefits that go beyond simply have a better-looking prosthesis. For Crittenden, it’s made it a little easier to keep up his active lifestyle. One design, which he uses playing soccer, is a built-in shin guard. When he goes snowboarding, it fills up his boot perfectly.
“There are all these practical parts of Fairing that people love, but weren’t even intended in the beginning,” Crittenden says. “It’s been a huge success so far.”