A startup by Texas A&M students has developed a fast, economical approach to building custom prosthetic devices.

Materials science and engineering students are using an innovative 3-D printing technique to bring greater speed, economy and customization to the creation of prosthetic devices. Blake Teipel '16 (Ph.D.) and graduate student Charles Brandon Sweeney have made this approach the center of their startup, TriFusion Devices, which focuses on improving the way prostheses are manufactured. 

Teipel and Sweeney developed a novel carbon nanotube-coated filament and a microwave welding process to fuse 3-D printed parts together. This allows them to take advantage of 3-D printing's speed and precision while potentially achieving the mechanical strength of an injection-molded or machined product. The technique enables the team to design, fabricate and fit a prosthetic device for a patient in 48 hours rather than the six to eight weeks traditionally needed for this process. 

In April, TriFusion Devices competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world's largest graduate-level student startup competition. The entrepreneurs presented their work with support from Texas A&M medical student Britton Eastburn, who provided insight into the technology's medical applications. A jury of 275 judges chose TriFusion as the best investment opportunity of the 42 teams from around the world that competed in this year's competition. TriFusion received nearly $400,000 in cash and prizes to further develop its technology and business.

Cutting cost & increasing speed

Approximately 2 million Americans have lost a limb due to an illness or accident, demonstrating the great need for quality limb prostheses. Yet these devices often cost tens of thousands of dollars and require a lengthy design and manufacturing process, prohibiting many people from obtaining these crucial devices. 

TriFusion's founders believe they can help to resolve this problem. In addition to printing prostheses with the same strength as their conventional counterparts, TriFusion's manufacturing process allows the devices to be built and fitted in less time. Their materials allow prosthetists to adjust the device's fit after it has been printed, which the team believes will eliminate the need for test-fit sockets or plaster molding.

"Customization today takes a long time with expensive materials, and the device must be hand-built," says Sweeney. "Three-dimensional printing, combined with our materials, changes the whole equation."

Benefiting the masses

TriFusion Devices' 3-D printed prosthetic sockets are currently in clinical trials, after which the company will pursue further testing in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The company plans to submit a 510(k) premarket notification with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in order to make their 3-D printed prosthetic devices publicly available.

Though the company is currently focused on prosthetic and orthotic devices, its founders plan to expand their manufacturing technique to other fields as well. Future applications may include production of customized sports equipment such as football helmets, pads and shin guards. The startup also plans to 3-D print safety gear for the military, including helmets and non-ballistic soft body armor.

"There is going to be an ever-increasing need for mass customization where you're going to have an option to get a device that was made specifically for you," says Sweeney. "That's going to make all the difference in the world for applications in the biomedical industry, sporting equipment and protective devices for military."

As part of the company's goal to increase access to quality prostheses, TriFusion is also collaborating with Baylor College of Medicine to provide affordable prosthetic devices to children in Tanzania. 

Dr. Micah Green
Associate Professor
Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering
Dr. Mustafa Akbulut
Associate Professor
Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering