Sunday, October 27, 2013

3D Printing in the Forge and Clinic: Hoof Anatomy Models, Veterinary Applications, and Horseshoes

3D printing in the horseshoe world probably was done first in some high-tech factory in Asia, but let's give some credit to Curtis Burns in the United States, who has been using 3D printing in the design of Polyflex glue-on shoes. Watch for Mucho Macho Man to run in the Breeders Cup Classic wearing shoes derived from this 3D printing technology on Saturday. (photo courtesy of Curtis Burns/Polyflex Horseshoes)
Everyone wants to know if I've seen the news release about the titanium horseshoes created on a 3D printer for a racehorse in Australia. That story has gone around the world. But has anyone seen the shoes on the horse? I wanted to know the horse's side of the story before I wrote an article.

Apparently, the horse isn't talking.

Curtis Burns, who uses a 3D printer here in the USA in the design of new models of his Polyflex shoes, was impressed that the Australians could "print" titanium. And everyone agrees that the purple is nice. But we could have sent them some Champion titanium raceplates from the USA.

After spending the week's grocery money on unreturned calls to Australia, I'm still interested in the tech side of this story, and the timing is good, so we'll just pick up this story and run with it anyway, shall we? Surely someone in Australia will call, email, tweet or Facebook soon. But there's plenty to talk about when it comes to 3D printing and the world of hoofcare and lameness.

Polyflex glue-on shoes are made from polyurethane with a wire insert; 3D printing is utilized in the design phase. Inventor Curtis Burns "prints" prototype masters from his CAD drawings so that slight variations in shapes and angles can go out for field testing fit-ability before larger-scale production begins with traditional molds. (photo courtesy of Curtis Burns/Polyflex)

First of all, if you are like me, 3D printing is something that has crept into the margins of your life, but you haven't paid much attention to the technology. You might hear about it on the news or hear it mentioned in the specifications of something you're buying. Medical devices and architects' models seem to have rushed to embrace this strange technology that can translate two-dimensional plans and drawings into...well, into real things. Real things with precise proportions.

We hear that you can "print" a handgun or a rifle. A website called "Thingiverse" has sprung up where users can exchange CAD files and print each others' "stuff"--even including an Indianapolis Colts logo ice cube tray, so you can make ice cubes with horseshoes in them. They were probably the first 3D horseshoes printed.

It seems that by the time printing something like horseshoes trickles down to the independent professional level, we  may have found a viable and economical alternative to a solid horseshoe but there could be many ways that 3D printing could be used for equine lameness support applications, casts, and any number of devices, tools and pieces used in surgery, limb correction, and specialized orthotics like fetlock braces, shoe and boot inserts and splints.

Coming along in tandem with 3D printing is tissue bio-engineering; an elite sport or race horse may finally be able to obtain replacement parts for the damaged feet that have been hampering its career, with the help of next-generation engineering. But will we be able to agree on what the characteristics of the ideal tissue donor would be?

Would a horse run faster in titanium shoes that fit the foot perfectly? (CSIRO image)

The easy answer to decreasing the weight of a horseshoe on a hoof below the very light weight of customary aluminum race plates would be to remove shoes altogether and have the horses run barefoot. When shoes are removed and, if the hooves are conditioned, the horse is time-trialed, is there an increase in speed? If there was, more horses would race without shoes altogether. The reduced weight of a tip shoe vs a full shoe isn't a handicapper's delight, either.

The old adage about "An ounce at the toe is worth a pound at the shoulder" has never been proven. Racing in steel shoes didn't seem to slow Man 'o War down. Polyflex shoes are probably the lightest shoes available, and horses have been successful wearing them, but Mucho Macho Man will he hoping to improve on his second-place finish in them in the 2012 Breeders Cup.

But what about education tools and, specifically, hoof anatomy models? Examples of 3D tools from both Australia and Germany are coming to the fore this week. From Germany, we have the University of Leipzig and the Dick and Dick hoof knife firm collaborating to "print" 3D hooves and lower limbs, which will be playing a role in another feature story on the Hoof Blog shortly.

A 3D printer created this hoof model detailing the blood supply in the pastern and hoof. (Image © Hoofcare Publishing and Effigos)
Enter our old friend Dr. Chris Pollitt from the University of Queensland in Australia and the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit. Dr Pollitt will be speaking at The Laminitis Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida on Friday and Saturday of this week (November 1-2).

One of Dr. Pollitt's lectures will be on the use of 3D printing to create 3D foot models from CT and MRI scans. "It is a joint Chris Pollitt and Simon Collins project," Dr. Pollitt told The Hoof Blog. "They derive from both CT and MR data and are thus created from true anatomy, not artists' impressions (of the anatomy). The CT gives high-resolution bone data while the MR resolves the soft tissue. What we have achieved using a cadaver limb in a wooden jig is co-registration of both image data sets--it's not easy. "

Dr. Pollitt's master 3D printed model of horse foot is based on the distal limb of a Standardbred stallion. These models, which are re-creations of the limb based on CT scans, are available from Dr. Pollitt in four versions with structures exposed or stripped for educational purposes. This one (#002) is in two pieces: the hoof capsule is removable.

Dr. Pollitt isn't the only Australian veterinarian exploring 3D technology. In this video, you'll see how Charles Kuntz, surgeon at Southpaws Specialist Veterinary Services in Victoria, Australia, is able to apply 3-D printing to the needs of his surgical patients. This video is also a great way to see 3D printing in action.

Kuntz says that his uPrint SE Printer extends existing CT scanning technologies to enable him to model a critical joint or physiological feature. The printer builds a life-sized three dimensional model from plastic, sprayed in microscopic layers in much the same way as an ink-jet printer. The built-up layers are guided by the CT images of the patient. The modeling allows a surgeon to literally hold the targetted site in his or her hands and this aids communication with referring vets and pet owners.

Looked at through the lens of what the technology can do for an animal in need, the possibilities are endless and encouraging. But technology for the sake of technology is not something that the hoof world needs right now. Purple coloration aside, CSIRO's 3D titanium experient raised questions as to whether we should go back to trying to perfect shoeing with titanium and considering high tech metal manufacturing, regardless of the cost.

Many people in sports are clamoring for something to make horses faster; in spite of our better care, feed, shoes, track maintenance and veterinary advancements, no major advancements in speed have been made.

That calls for an answer. But when people ask you about this, tell them what I'm telling people who ask me: "We're waiting for the horse to check in." As soon as he puts out a press release on how the purple shoes work on his feet, you'll see it on this website. It's always the benefit that the horse derives from a shoe that matters, since he doesn't know or care how it was made or how much it cost.

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