Diabetes: Can 3D printing help save feet?

3D-printed orthosis from the LAUF-project (Fraunhofer)

Because diabetics often lack feeling in their feet, it is vitally important that they have footwear that fits. If they don't, they can develop pressure sores that will take a long time to heal, and sometimes even lead to amputation. That's why they frequently get custom orthoses made for their shoes. Now, it's looking like 3D printing could make those orthoses even better.

The printed insoles are being developed via Germany's LAUF (laser-assisted construction of customized footwear) project. Patients start by getting a 3D scan of their feet done, as opposed to having plaster casts made. That scan is used to create computer models that not only show the shape of their feet, but that also indicate pressure points along their soles. Based on that information, computer models of the insoles are created.

Utilizing those models, a laser sintering process is used to selectively melt thermoplastic polyurethane powder, building the insoles up one layer at a time. By varying the internal structure of the insoles, it's possible to control how rigid or soft they are in different areas, allowing for either firm support or cushioning as needed.

It is estimated that software for creating the insoles may be commercially available within about two years. Source: Fraunhofer