Plastics Technology: Vision of the Future?

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By Miki Fairley

"Just about everything we do in O&P could benefit from having both rigid and flexible plastic in different parts of the same device," says Tony Wickman, RTPO, Freedom Fabrication Inc., Havana, Florida. Since having both rigid and flexible parts is similar to the nature of the human body, "if we could mimic that same structure, we would have better devices."

He continues, "The way we mold things is so antiquated, we can't even use most of the high-tech materials that are out there--or even the mid-tech. There are other materials that are vastly better, but to use them, we need to make faster, cheaper models or molds. If we can get to the point where we can either blow-mold or injection-mold plastics, we could take advantage of these materials." There has not been a major technological leap in O&P materials science for about 25 years, since the use of thermoplastics became widely used in the 70s and 80s, he notes.

The tough part is cost. For high-tech plastics, the molds would have to be made of metal or epoxy, Wickman notes. "Typically I now have about $312 in each mold, and then to modify and finish, about $1520 in each mold. However, injection molding would require about $3,00010,000 per mold," he said.

Rapid Prototyping: Promising?

Rapid prototyping--a new technology which enables manufacturers to test products without having to spend big bucks in parts, molds, etc.--offers promise. With the use of 3-D software and stereo printers, manufacturers can develop test products that are the same in dimension but not having the same quality as actual production would require. "They then can put the parts together and see how they fit and perform," Wickman explains. Again, though, the cost is high: about $2,500 a minute for a machine.

Wickman notes that in O&P, every custom product is in a sense a prototype, since it is uniquely made for a particular patient.

Even though the costs of high-tech molding techniques for various plastics which can provide both firm and flexible characteristics have been coming down, they are still high. Wickman cites the cost of an original mold he has that cost about $12,000 when it was first made, but now would cost about $3,500.

How feasible is it that rapid prototyping, blow-molding, and injection-molding could become part of the O&P industry? "We'll probably see human clones or cure most of the diseases we have before this becomes a reality," Wickman laughs. "It's a reach at this point." But hey, we can dream, can't we?