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3D Printing Longtime Staple of VAPHS Research Lab

An engineer retrieves a 3D-printed object from a 3D printer.
Garrett Grindle, assistant director for engineering at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, retrieves a 3D-printed object from the 3D printer.

Last week, VA engineers at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) participated in North America's most influential 3D printing event in Detroit.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file and enables the production of complex and functional shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.

HERL—a collaboration between VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the University of Pittsburgh, and the UPMC Health System—have used 3D printing for more than 15 years to accelerate the development of accessibility devices for Veterans.

"Nearly every HERL development project uses some 3D-printed parts," notes Garrett Grindle, HERL's assistant director for engineering.

Since HERL engineers create unique inventions—such as the PneuChair, a wheelchair powered solely by compressed air, or Strong Arm, a robotic arm for a wheelchair—they can't just run to the store and buy a part off a shelf. Their designs and prototypes require 3D-printed parts.

Before 3D printing, Grindle said, creating unique parts was time consuming and costly.

"Worse, things were often not made, as ideas were judged to be too costly or take too much time," Grindle said. "Having an enabling technology like 3D printing now allows for rapidly executing ideas and the freedom to try new things quickly—and this, no doubt, has led to more and better ideas for assistive devices."

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System is one of more than 25 VA medical facilities that have embraced 3D printing technology, leading to innovations and advancements in surgery, prosthetics and treatment of chronic illness.

One of the newest inventions that HERL engineers are developing is a computer mouse specifically designed for Veterans who use prosthetic hooks.

"They have a very unusual shape and would be very difficult to make in the quantities we are making them in with any other technology," Grindle said. Another benefit of 3D printing is perfect reproducibility.

"Often, we need to make 10, 20, 50, or 200 copies of a single device to support a clinical trial. 3D printers are great for scaling up to make these short production runs."

3D printing has helped HERL since 2003 in their mission of improving the mobility and function of Veterans—and all people—with disabilities through advanced engineering in clinical research and medical rehabilitation. The technology, Grindle said, has come a long way.

"Our first 3D printer had some significant limitations on the types of material it could use, but the potential was clearly there," Grindle said. "Over time, machines and materials got better. We went from making maybe a few hundred basic plastic parts a year to making several thousand plastic parts, many of high complexity."

HERL has been a leader in using 3D printing technology, helping to spread the technology to VA facilities nationwide and in training the next generation of 3D print users.

"Some of the first rehab engineers within the VA to use 3D printing parts in assistive technology clinics have been HERL alumni," Grindle said. "They were strong advocates for spreading these technologies to other VA assistive technology clinics and creating the national network.

"We've trained hundreds of people in this technology: students, vocational trainees, staff and faculty. 3D printers are easy to operate and a good starting point for introducing people to manufacturing."

While it can take years to master designing parts for 3D printers, the operation of the machines can be taught in several weeks.

"We teach people the theory behind the machines, how to operate them, and good design practices for making parts on 3D printers."

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