A homemade 3D printer? How a medical supply store makes the leap into additive manufacturing

3D printers are no longer just a hobby for computer freaks. According to recent studies, more and more German companies are using their own 3D printers. However, what’s the current situation in German medical supply stores? Digitization is coming here, too - no question about it. Additively manufactured orthotics are becoming more and more common, as they are not only individually designed to fit, but can also be produced in a material-saving and more efficient way. Afterall, the majority of small medical supply stores cannot afford expensive 3D printers. Manufacturing is outsourced. At OT aktiv, a medical supply store in Greifswald, things are quite different: Here they use the same way as commonly known in traditional processes - everything as they need it on a case by case basis, their own 3D printers as well as third-party manufacturing.

Combining tradition and innovation

Additive manufacturing is a hotly debated topic at OT aktiv. Managing Director Frank Starkowski not only wants to keep up with the times, but also expects to save a significant amount of time, money, reduce material and storage costs and, last but not least, improve occupational safety.

From left to right: Philipp Greifenberg and Robert Raschke from OT aktiv medical supply store in front of their own FDM printer.

In the end, Robert Raschke, mechanical engineer at OT aktiv, gave the starting signal for the digital future: This year, in the course of his thesis for his Master of Engineering degree, he built a 3D printer on his own within five months. "For us, building the 3D printer symbolically represented the best first step toward integrating additive manufacturing technology into our company. We decided on a large format right away, since there are plenty of small systems available and they are also relatively affordable," says Raschke about the development and construction of the FDM system.

Tip: FDM printing? SLS? MJF? CNC milling? Relevant information on the process, materials and tips & tricks on digital manufacturing in orthopedics technology can be found here.

Left: A technical sketch of the FDM system by Robert Raschke. Right: The finished FDM system in the medical supply store in Greifswald.

With the FDM system, OT aktiv is pursuing the goal of manufacturing larger orthopedic aids, such as lower leg foot orthoses or trunk orthoses, themselves. They are aware that the mechanical properties of the FDM/FFF process make it ideally suited for purpose-built molds, but only to a limited extent for manufacturing end products. "We see this 3D printer mainly in prototyping, the production of trial orthoses for quality control, but also as a supporting process for traditional crafts", says Raschke. By this, he envisions the printing of digitally corrected and modeled special functional forms as hollow molds, which can be foamed out as positives in the further process and then be processed traditionally. "In this way, we can minimize the number of plaster casts, which is much more convenient not only for the patient but also for the employee", Raschke affirms. In addition, time-consuming plaster modeling is eliminated, not to mention the physical strain of handling large, heavy plaster models. Not to forget, the cost factor is also considerable. FDM printing is the simplest and most cost-effective option for the production of functional forms.

The FDM system can read STL files and prints them at temperatures between 180 and 500 degrees Celsius.

Additive manufacturing creates freedom

Raschke sees another advantage in having the digital plaster cast always at hand in his database. Both, the processing of the digital models and 3D printing, can be carried out at any time, in parallel and independently of each other. For example, the FDM system in Greifswald runs day and night: It takes about 24 hours to print a prototype (an individual orthotic shell). Once the employees are satisfied with the respective test orthosis, the final print - especially in the case of functional, i.e. more heavily loaded orthoses - is carried out in industrial 3D printing via an external service provider. Here, our printing expert Jannis Breuninger recommends production using selective laser sintering (SLS) or multi-jet fusion (MJF). Both processes can handle polyamide 11 and 12, which are very suitable for orthoses. The final touches to the orthosis happen manually: closures and padding are applied before the fitting takes place on the patient. One of the main advantages is that additive manufacturing frees up space for other tasks, as the printing process only needs to be monitored.

Tip: In the next live webinar on December 8, you will learn everything about milling and 3D printing in orthopedic technology: techniques, materials and how to get started easily. Find out more here.

Looking forward to the future with excitement

"As an employer, you have to move with the times to inspire young people," agrees colleague Philipp Greifenberg, who has been working as a CPO at OT aktiv for seven years. The medical supply store has already digitized processes within footwear technology, implemented 2D and 3D scanners as well as CNC insole milling machines ("Workshop 4.0"). With the new FDM printer, the company is taking another step into the future. For future CPOs, the combination of tradition and innovation are decisive reasons to apply to medical supply companies like OT aktiv. Aspiring master craftsman Philipp Greifenberg is looking forward to developing innovative fittings in the future with the help of digital manufacturing options. He also looks forward to the gradual digitization of traditional craftsmanship: "When you realize that traditional tools end up just being mapped digitally, it makes it easier for you, mentally, to break through the barrier and go for it," Greifenberg says of orthotic manufacturing on the computer.

In conclusion, Robert Raschke aptly sums up, "The integration of additive manufacturing technology opens up a range of new possibilities for solving old problems that can be linked to additive manufacturing. It was only with this step that the unimagined possibilities became increasingly apparent." He is pleased about the steadily growing enthusiasm and creativity of his colleagues for new areas of application and is probably already working on the next project... But, one thing is already clear: the next step will be to place the new printer in a representative location. Thereby, customers can see right away: here, they’re breaking new ground.

The 3D printing of a test orthosis in fast motion. Original time: 27 hours.

It doesn't have to be a self-built printer...

But if you want to find out everything about milling or 3D printing in orthopedic technology, then register right now for our upcoming webinar on December 8. Get more information here.