Talk about a step into the future… Exoskeletal robots, once the domain of science fiction, are now helping people in need rise from their wheelchairs. One day in the not-so-distant future, they may replace wheelchairs all together. Imagine being able to stand tall and walk again after months or years in a chair. It must be an unbelievable feeling, a new kind of freedom.
These robotic exoskeletons become the new musculature for the people who use them, and like each unique body, each exoskeleton requires its own fittings and its own interface with the person that it supports. This need — to naturally connect exoskeleton and person — sparked a recent collaboration between Ekso Bionics™ and 3D Systems.
Ekso Bionics, a California-based company, has been a pioneer in engineering robotic exoskeleton suits since 2005. Today their exoskeletons are some of the most forward-thinking designs in the world for people looking to supplement their mobility. One by one, Ekso is helping people rethink physical limitations, and we at 3D Systems wanted to drive that mission even further by creating 3D-printed parts that would enhance the connection between body and Ekso robotic. Together, we wanted to make the exoskeletal robot personal.
Connecting Man and Machine
“The first time that I donned Ekso, I strapped the device on and I stood up. That was a defining moment,” says Amanda Boxtel in a video by Ekso Bionics. Amanda suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury on a snowy Colorado ski slope more than 20 years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since — until Ekso Bionics made her a test pilot for its exoskeletal suit. After meeting her, 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental offered to have her Ekso refitted with 3D-printed components, and the project began in earnest.
The goal was to create customized parts that could hold the body in specific locations to provide balance and support while carefully avoiding areas prone to bruising. At the same time, the interstitial parts had to minimize the time required to put on and take off the suit. The 3D-printed parts also had to be strong enough to hold the body in various states and remain flexible enough to provide comfort.
To create these customized parts, 3D Systems designers Scott Summit and Gustavo Fricke first scanned Amanda from head to toe. They used the resulting 3D model to create personalized CAD models for components at specific points on the suit — the shins, thighs, and spine. Scanning allowed them to create an even distribution of pressure about the musculature of the legs, which are highly sensitive to uneven pressure despite the lack of tactile sensation. Summit and Fricke also modeled the spinal support as a digital average between standing and seated scans, so it could conform accurately and comfortably to the upper body regardless of position.
Aesthetics were also an important consideration. In this regard, the design team sought to visually link Amanda’s body with the Ekso suit. You can see that the pieces incorporate some beautiful design elements such as smooth curves, complex patterns, and muscle-like strands. Moreover, the filigree pattern allows the skin to ventilate, which reduces sweat buildup, reducing the friction and risk of infection. Fricke and Summit even designed handles within the 3D-printed forms disguised to diminish the connotations that come along with the visual handle.
Having created CAD models of each component, the design team 3D printed prototypes overnight to test for fit and function, and to make any necessary alterations. After all, you can spend all day designing digitally, but testing designs in the real world is invaluable. Once they concluded this iterative design process, the final parts were 3D printed using 3D Systems Selective Laser Sintering technology, which was chosen specifically for its ability to produce lightweight, robust parts.
The team replaced the Velcro straps that previously supported Amanda in the Ekso suit with these new 3D printed elements. As you can see in the pictures, the designs are quite stunning, and they looked even better when Amanda debuted the hybrid exoskeleton in November 2013, as she stood tall on a stage in Budapest and walked.
“This project represents the triumph of human creativity and technology,” Amanda said. “I am deeply grateful and thrilled.” We expect this triumph and many like it to follow in the future. This project demonstrates that with the prevalence of 3D scanning, design and 3D printing tools, we can do the impossible.
With handheld scanning tools, like the Sense scanner, and a process that incorporates customizable but template-driven design for mass manufacturing, projects like this can become feasible on a large scale. 3D printing brings that to the table: the ability to both localize and customize while producing for the masses. In the instance of personalized medicine, as with this Ekso suit, that combination means better, personalized patient care and a higher quality of life around the world.
This project tells us that more good things are coming. Amanda’s suit is only the beginning.