South of Market in San Francisco, industrial designer Scott Summitt, is blurring the line between medical devices and sculpture. He calls what he’s making the Fairing.
The word fairing typically describes the covering on a motorcycle – the curved shiny part that makes it a sleek, aerodynamic machine. Scott Summit, Director of technology at Bespoke Innovations 3D Systems is pushing the definition—his fairings are for people with prosthetic limbs.
“Typically a prosthetic limb is a very mechanically designed thing. Hardware, exposed nuts and bolts, titanium tube, carbon fiber foot,” says Scott who has designed for Apple, Nike and other Silicon Valley companies.
“The idea here is, how do we give somebody their body shape, their symmetry and turn this into a piece of sculpture that really represents the person, more like jewelry or something they would wear deliberately.”
Part Human Part Machine
Chad Crittenden is a tester and employee at Bespoke. A lifelong athlete, he lost his leg to a rare form of cancer 10 years ago. “Scott and I will sit down and talk about what I’m going to be doing and how I want it to look,”says Chad (who was the first amputee contestant on the TV reality show Survivor). “The front side of this fairing is the shape of what my shin would be. The backside, the calf shape, I wanted bomber jacket leather.”
Ironman athlete, Sarah Reinertsen’s leg is amputated above the knee. “I have often felt that I am part human part machine. So I wanted to choose one of the patterns where you could kind of see into the mechanics of the leg.”
Scott and the designers at Bespoke work individually with each person to customize and develop the look of the fairing. Leather, chrome, heavy-duty dishwasher safe plastic – simple or patterned. Some people choose plaid, or snakeskin, or a tattoo. The back covering of Sarah Reinertsen’s fairing is a see- through herringbone design dipped in chrome.
“What’s most important is the functionality,” says Sarah, “but now I can also have it look beautiful, and it’s cool to fill in a pair of jeans and not have it flopping around on the pylon.”
The idea came to Scott about twenty years ago when he saw Aimee Mullins at a conference talking about being an amputee and how that shaped the way she goes about her life. Amy showed the audience her sprinting legs made of carbon graphite and the legs she uses for tennis and softball that have shock absorbers in them.
“Here’s this lovely woman,” Scott remembers, “ but she had these legs that were looking so mechanical. And I thought, ‘Wow, why did nobody step up to the plate and make something as sculptural and fluid as the rest of her.’” Scott realized that a major obstacle was the difficulty and expense of producing a custom device per person.
That all changed about five years ago with the technical advances made in 3D printing. “Suddenly you could 3 dimensionally print a part that was durable, completely custom tailored to the body. We can design things that are not mass-produced that don’t see the world as one size fits all.”
Scan, Design, Print
The first step in making a fairing is to scan the person’s “sound side” leg using image-based 3D scanning technology. This takes less than a minute. A 3D computer model is mirrored and superimposed over the prosthetic post.
“If a person is missing 2 legs,” says Scott, “we try to find a surrogate who is the right height, weight, age – a body morphology donor to come in and get scanned. Then we start shaping and sculpting digitally.”
Scott explains that the term 3D printing, is a metaphor. It’s not printing anything in the traditional sense of what printing is. A 3D computer model is sent to the printer and the computer inside this machine slices it up into very thin cross sectional slices. A laser, or an electron beam, or a nozzle creates one layer after another after another. A range of materials can be used–plastics, nylon, metal, ceramics.
Mountains of Failed Products
We walk around the Bespoke 3D Systems loft office looking at tiny plastic robots, gadgets and gizmos – all 3D printed. Small printers, about the size of coffee makers whiz and whirr layering and layering brightly colored plastic.
Scott picks up a guitar and begins to tune it. “This guitar was entirely 3 D printed—the body, the sterling silver on the badge, even the stainless steel plate on the neck.
“The technology is new enough that people have no idea of where it can go. We have no idea where it can go. Most of the time we’re experimenting. So we have mountains of failed products. that ‘s kind of what this environment is. A place where you can screw up then get it right the next time.”
Anything is Possible
“I grew up down the peninsula,” says Scott. “My dad was one of the Silicon Valley early guys. He and his collaborators were explorers. They had these new tools—data bases, boolean searches, ascii text files, and the modem – this idea that you can transfer information over a telephone line, a crazy idea. That was exciting to see as a kid, this idea that anything is possible.
“The big goal for the prosthetics, for me anyway, is that one day we’ll be able to go to a developing country, scan the person with nothing more than a camera, 3 dimensionally print a prosthetic leg that somebody could pull out of the machine and walk a way with. Fully structural. Ready to go.”