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Art aids arthritis patients through cross-campus collaboration

Two very different Towson University departments have collaborated to create the first prototype of a hand brace to be made by a 3-D printer.

The College of Fine Arts and Communication’s Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education and the College of Health Professions’ Occupational Therapy Program have partnered with the university’s Object Lab to construct a custom hand splint that offers a perfect fit.

Hand splint

The custom splint created by a 3-D printer offers patients a perfect fit, both seamless and durable.

The project began when Marlene Riley, clinical associate professor, occupational therapist and certified hand therapist, met Anna Scuderi, a graduate student who was enrolled in Metalsmithing and Jewelry before she moved to the occupational therapy program, and asked if she would be willing to combine her two interests.

“It is important for occupational therapy (OT) to cross collaborate with art and design professionals due to rapid changes in the available technology,” says Riley. “Occupational therapists are not able to do computer-aided design (CAD). When OT collaborates with art, the OT can assist in the anatomical considerations and the artist can create the design using CAD and technology such as the 3-D printer.”

The first to benefit from the collaboration? Individuals who suffer from osteoarthritis. For such patients, occupational therapists often make custom hand splints using low-temperature thermoplastics. The splint is molded to a person’s hand, but the final product is less durable overall than commercial splints and has seams where the material overlaps. A custom splint created by a 3-D printer, however, offers a perfect fit that is both seamless and durable.

Scuderi shared the proposed 3-D splint project with Kyriani Hinkleman, a metalsmithing and jewelry major and intern with the Object Lab. Since then, the two students have worked under faculty supervision to test the concept that a durable hand splint with a perfect fit can be made using the state-of-the-art digital fabrication technology of the Object Lab.

“We used Professor Riley’s hand as the model for the first prototype, and laid out the area the brace should cover,” explains Joshua DeMonte, an assistant professor in the Object Lab. “Since we do not have a scanner that can accurately capture body parts at the tolerance we needed for the project, we made a paraffin mold of her hand and scanned a plaster copy on our next engine desktop scanner.”

With a mold in place, DeMonte and Hinkleman explored different ways of generating the brace. Their research found that using a freeware program called Mesh-Mixer yielded accurate results that were easy and quick to generate.

“The printed brace fit perfectly,” says Riley, who believes it fits better than the hand-made braces made in Occupational Therapy that require additional strapping to hold them in place.

“The first prototype was amazingly successful and shows a lot of promise for the project as a whole,” agrees DeMonte, who is already working with students to move into the second round of prototyping.

“We have completed the first prototype, which exceeded my level of expectations,” he says. “We are now assessing cost and efficiency. Our next step will be to generate a brace for an actual patient.”

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