A few months ago, Daniel Vlasic visited a hand surgeon at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., to treat a finger injury he suffered during a pick-up basketball game. Both Vlasic and the doctor, James Connor, felt strongly that existing splint technology, which consists of a rudimentary metal rod surrounded by bandages, is ugly and ineffective.
While Connor did not have the design expertise to reinvent the splint, Vlasic happens to be a software engineer with access to a 3-D printer. Vlasic went home and quickly printed several prototypes of a ring-like accessory that accomplishes the goal of keeping the injured finger immobilized. Vlasic was particularly attuned to the appearance of the device, building it with clear plastic. “Once I put it on, you wouldn’t even know I was wearing it,” he says. As a bonus, Vlasic was able to go surfing with this ring on because, unlike traditional splints, it can be exposed to water.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think we can all agree that after beholding most medical accessories, they look incredibly unattractive–and are often not as pragmatically designed as they could be.
Why, for instance, does healing a broken bone involve weeks of toting around an unsightly plaster cast? (Yes, in high school it was fun to scribble on them, but still.) And surely there must be a better way to fix a broken finger than wearing a metal splint with wads of cotton taped to it.
Vlasic sure thinks so, and says that 3-D printers allow doctors to create devices that are perfectly customized to patients’ bodies. “I was able to measure my finger at different locations and incorporate those measurements into the design,” he says. “I can easily adapt the design to other fingers.”
Sam Jacoby, marketing manager at Formlabs, has noticed that the medical community is particularly excited about using 3-D printers to generate inexpensive custom devices for patients. He tells me that doctors at Harvard Medical School are currently working on a prototype that uses 3-D printers to create surgical stents tailored to patients’ heart valves. “There is an interesting meeting of design and more effective medicine,” says Jacoby. “All of our bodies are different. Why should we all have the same medical devices?”
That’s the question on the minds of some doctors and artists, and they are now making the case that medical devices do not have to be completely devoid of aesthetic considerations. In fact, designers are taking a stab at creating medical accessories that are highly functional, but also beautiful: Consider a recently invented finger splint that looks like a stylish ring, an arm cast in the form of an avant-garde sleeve, and a trendy glove that protects your hand from carpal tunnel syndrome.
All these devices were created by 3-D printers, machines that make it easy to imagine an object and, within minutes, print a physical prototype of it. Over the last five years, a slew of affordable 3-D printers have hit the market, with companies like Makerbot and Formlabs creating machines that cost a few thousand dollars. The medical and design communities have been early adopters and particularly avid users of these inexpensive printers, and in an unexpected twist of fate, these two groups have started mingling and collaborating, resulting in a new generation of design forward medical products.
Maxim Lobovsky, one of Formlabs’ founders, has watched this interplay between doctors and designers unfold over the last few years. In 2012, Lobovsky and his partners launched a Kickstarter to generate seed funding to create a low-cost, professional-grade printer. Over two thousand backers pledged nearly $3 million, including artists and biomedical engineers, making it one of the top 15 best funded campaigns of all time. Lobovsky tells me that since 3-D printers have such diverse applications, it is a technology that lends itself to productive partnerships between people from different fields. “3-D printers present a place where very different applications intersect,” Lobovsky says. “There has been cross-pollination between those groups.”
Deniz Karasahin, an industrial designer, says that artists and doctors bring completely different skills and perspectives to the table, fostering creativity and exploration when they work together. “Doctors are highly trained individuals who have a very good eye for detecting little details, but sometimes when it comes to problem-solving, you can have to simplify the situation,” he tells me. “Designers have the advantage of being able to see things from a distance.” Karasahin recently had the opportunity to work with doctors on an utterly reimagined medical cast that looks like a haute couture sleeve with a dramatic latticework pattern on it. The 3-D printed plastic cast is designed to promote ventilation and is equipped with an ultrasound device that speeds up the healing of bones, illustrating that beautiful design can coexist with functionality.
3-D printers are transforming the appearance of medical accessories, but just as importantly, they enable medical product designers be more creative in the R&D process. Alexander Berry, a product designer with Sutrue, a company that creates devices that help surgeons stitch with greater precision, says that affordable 3-D printers allow him to test prototypes quickly and make tweaks as needed. This is a sea change from his previous arrangement, which involved the time-consuming and expensive process of outsourcing prototypes to a third-party manufacturer. “It slowed down our creativity,” Berry says. “Having your own 3-D printer opens up the possibility of printing out an initial idea when you have no guarantee it will work, then building from there.”
As 3-D printing technology facilitates the flow of ideas from the design community into the medical industry, ideas from biology and medicine are also making their way to artists. Take Nervous Systems, a design studio that creates art and jewelry based on nature. “Bodies have a certain shape, form and function that emerges in individuals with variations,” Jessica Rosenkrantz, the company co-founder, tells me. “We are interested in exploring how these forms and structures emerge.” She and her partner develop algorithms that mimic natural patterns, then use 3-D printers to create jewelry like necklaces that evoke cell patterns or kinematic processes.
The Mediated Matter Group at MIT brings together artists and engineers who use biology as inspiration for design. Steven Keating, a researcher within this group, tells me that 3-D printing is crucial throughout the creative process, from prototyping to fabrication. He points me to the work of the group’s leader Neri Oxman, who has produced a series of art installations for the Centre Pompidou gallery in Paris based on structures in the human body, such as a helmet inspired by lungs, a minotaur head inspired by the skull and a sculpture in the shape of a knee socket. 3-D printing has also allowed Oxman to dabble in creating prototypes for functional medical devices: To help treat Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, she has developed a protective glove whose design takes into account the individual pain-profile of each patient. Based on the unique physiology of a patient’s hand, Oxman distributes hard and soft materials throughout the glove, creating a fascinating pattern. “There is definitely convergence happening between art and medicine,” Keating says.
That means your next cast might not be simply an ungainly canvas to be scribbled upon, but the work of art itself.