Much like optometrists prescribing glasses, we prescribe orthotics as podiatrists. About a year ago, during a consultation, a client and I started talking about 3D printing. “Why can’t they use this technology to make orthotics?” The client asked. To which, I remember saying, “yeh, I think that would be a brilliant idea.” Little did I know, fast forward 12 months, 3D printed orthotics actually became a thing!
What are orthotics?
Orthotics (aka orthoses, insoles, arch support) are a medical device for the feet to facilitate better lower limb alignment and improve lower limb biomechanics. An analogy we like to draw is one between prescription glasses and orthotics – when you wear glasses, you see better; similarly, when you wear orthotics, you walk better.
Many have the idea that orthotics can “create” a foot arch in someone who is flat-footed, especially if they start wearing them at a young age. While wearing orthotics can create muscle memory in the feet, orthotics cannot create a foot arch.
Orthotics are like glasses for your eyes, not braces for your teeth.
It is also worth mentioning that there is nothing to panic about if you happen to be flat-footed. Much like how some people are tall while some are short, some have big eyes and some have smaller eyes, flat feet are simply a foot type. It is a completely normal anatomical variation.
Unfortunately, many marketing gimmicks have taken advantage of this whole issue of being flat-footed, misleading many into believing that having flat feet is a major problem.
The process of getting orthotics
Let’s talk about the process that happens at the clinic before we get to the manufacturing stage. This process remains the same whether we go for either the pressing method or 3D printing.
The process starts with your podiatrist performing a computerised scan of your feet. The scan captures the contour of your feet, making your orthotics uniquely yours. Your podiatrist will also perform a video gait analysis and various assessments. The results of these assessment form your biomechanical profile – how you walk, how your feet function, your foot type, etc.
Based on your biomechanical profile, your podiatrist will formulate your orthotic prescription, striking a fine balance between function and comfort. On this note, we couldn’t emphasise more that orthotics should ALWAYS feel comfortable. We’ve heard too many stories about how orthotics are chunky and supposed to be uncomfortable. Not only does that put people off from wearing orthotics, this idea just couldn’t be further from the truth.
With both the 3D scan and prescription ready to go, your podiatrist then send these two pieces of vital information off to our lab in Melbourne where all the magic happens!
Before 3D printing – the pressing method
The pressing method starts with the production of wooden moulds of your feet based on the digital scan. Once the wooden moulds are ready to go, the lab technician heats up a sheet of polypropylene to make it mouldable. The polypropylene is usually 2mm or 3mm thick depending on the prescription.
The technician then presses the mouldable sheet of polypropylene against the wooden mould and let it cool. When the polypropylene becomes firm again, the technician will cut away the extra material. External components, such as, rearfoot posts, are glued to the polypropylene shell. The last thing that goes onto an orthotic is the cover which adds cushioning. With some finishing touches, a pair of orthotics is finished!
What makes 3D printing better than pressing?
1. 3D printing enhances accuracy
With the pressing method, we could only choose between fixed thicknesses of polypropylene sheets (2mm, 3mm, 4mm). What if someone needs something in between 3mm and 4mm? Going 3mm may not provide enough support, but going 4mm may be just a bit too aggressive.
3D printing allows us to specify the thickness of the orthotic up to the microns – we can choose 3.45mm for the above situation, or 3.33 to play with numbers. We don’t really do the latter, but you get the idea.
Since the manufacturing process is machine-based, 3D printing minimises human error, optimising the consistency of the end product.
2. 3D printing is more environmentally friendly
The pressing method yields a wastage of approximately 10%. 3D printing, on the other hand, generates a wastage of 0.5%. That is significantly lower than that of the pressing method.
The material used in 3D printing is a plant-based material. The plant is not for food consumption, so it won’t compete with food demand. 3D printing can, therefore, stays viable and sustainable.
3. 3D printing offers a more refined end product
The material used for 3D printing provides a matte black finish throughout the entire orthotic, enhancing the aesthetic of the orthotics. But, aesthetic aside, the matte black finish actually makes the orthotic slip-resistant, so you can wear the orthotics as is without putting a cover on top.
Where are we going with this?
Since the lab started 3D printing, we have switched to doing 3D printed orthotics exclusively. 3D printed orthotics are the next generation of orthotics. We are so excited to be one of the first in Australia to lead the trend. We are confident that you will love them as much as we do. It is the same comfort and effectiveness you are familiar with, only better!
And, of course, it’s never too soon or late to see a podiatrist. Book an appointment with us today!