High-tech at the Paralympic Games – 3D printer prostheses

By Elmar Krämer

Perfectly fitting parts for prostheses can now be produced with the 3D printer. (images imago / SNA / Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik)

Future Paralympic Lab: The workshop here is almost as important as the training rooms. Sewing, welding and sawing take place over 700 square meters in Tokyo – from prosthetics to wheelchairs. Some things are also produced on site with a 3D printer.

Paralympic sport is tough and high performance – but only when people and equipment are one, often in the truest sense. Futuristic lower limb prostheses, discreet prosthetic arms or carbon wheelchairs. The enormous achievements of triathlon, sprinting, wheelchair basketball and all other sports can only be achieved if the equipment works perfectly.

“I always say three things are important during the Paralympic Games,” said athlete Heinrich Popow, multiple Paralympic medalist in the sprint and long jump.

“This is the room you sleep in, then this is the dining room where you eat, and this is the workshop. Because you should already know where you can get help if the components don’t fit. more or if something from Reason also breaks. “

From classic workshops to future laboratories

The Tokyo workshop is located in a factory hall not far from the stadium. On 700 square meters there is everything from classic workshops to future laboratories, as explained by Peter Franzel of orthopedic manufacturer Otto Bock. He is the director of the technical service team:

“We can also scan parts of the body and then print special fit parts in the 3D printer, which we then manufacture individually for the athletes.”

Followed by a camera, Franzel walks through the rooms. Despite Corona’s strict requirements, there is a lot going on in the workshops and in the waiting area. Franzel shows a finger guard for an archer – created in a 3D printer.

“Right now he’s printing another part, which takes a few more hours now with the 3D printer, but I’m sure it will be much, much faster and more efficient in the future and then we can do a much more.”

Up to 200 repairs per day

Up to 200 repairs per day are required. About 98% of this work is conventional work: welding, sawing, sewing, riveting.

It is a huge effort with the corresponding logistics: 18 tons of material were airlifted from Germany. Including over 17,000 spare parts and workshop machines such as milling machines, drills, infrared ovens, etc.

“For the Paralympic Games, you also have to offer this repair service,” says Franzel. “It’s written in the site specifications and Otto Bock has been doing it since 1988 and only we are doing it.”

The German company is the world market leader in orthopedic prostheses. Most sports prostheses and wheelchairs for the Paralympic Games come from Germany. However, the workshop also helps athletes from other countries.

“We repair all brands of all manufacturers around the world, including homemade ones. There are a lot of things in the sports industry that are made in-house, where the athletes themselves work with their friends and coaches. We repair everything and of course we also have spare parts from other manufacturers included. “

The prosthesis is adapted to the level of performance

If a belt breaks, a ball bearing is not functioning properly, a prosthesis socket is loose, or a part breaks – there is almost nothing that cannot be repaired on the spot. Creativity and know-how are often required: for the opening ceremony, for example, the specialists had to design and manufacture supports for the upper body for two flag-bearers without arms.

Prostheses are sophisticated special devices. Still, no part is as sophisticated as nature, explains Heinrich Popow, who is now an orthopedic technician himself:

“A human body adapts to development, perhaps by building or reducing muscle. A mechanical component then has to be readjusted again and again. This is the secret. It is necessary to continue to verify that the prosthesis corresponds to the current level of performance. “

It does not work without trust in the device

But for top performance at the Paralympic Games, you don’t just need the perfect gear. Equally important is emotional trust in the device:

“My coach has always told me that when I leave at the start of a high point like the Paralympics, I should never have a question in mind that I haven’t answered yet. And that’s why the relationship with orthopedic technicians is extremely important. I should not have the question in mind of whether my prosthesis will hold now or whether it is perfectly adjusted. That must go without saying. “

Heinrich Popow knows both sides: in the past as a top athlete and now as an orthopedic technician. In Tokyo, he sees himself as a mediator between sport and technology.

“I am happy to be able to help a lot with my career and my knowledge, although in the end it may not always be the help, but just caressing the soul. A remedy does not always have to help the athletes to provide optimal performance. ”

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