Lasered Limbs

UT engineering prof Rick Neptune makes better cutting-edge, customized prosthetics for military amputees than ever before.

In his palm, mechanical engineering professor Rick Neptune holds a smooth, lightweight foot. The prosthetic is rounded at the toes, raised at the heel, and at first glance, ordinary.

But look again. Because it’s the customization you can’t appreciate with a cursory glance that makes this prosthetic so remarkable—allowing a military amputee to once again walk, play basketball, or even return to active duty by wearing a tailor-made, laser-produced, and individualized prosthetic like this one.

“It’s so inspiring to see these individuals who are working hard to return to active duty, and some of the injuries they’ve had are just horrific,” Neptune says. “If we can help in any small way to give them a piece of their lives back—well, nothing feels better.”

For the past few years, Neptune has collaborated with Seattle’s Department of Veteran Affairs Center of Excellence for Limb Loss Prevention and San Antonio’s Center for the Intrepid.

Neptune and his team are designing prosthetics and ankle-foot orthotic devices using a UT-Austin-developed technique called selective laser sintering. It allows the engineers to design a prosthetic limb or orthotic device on a computer, and then replicate the design in 3D with a laser process that melts, or “sinters,” a special nylon powder. The powder is transformed layer by layer into a hard, but elastic prosthetic.

Not only do the resulting devices improve functional mobility, they also are more customized, comfortable, and even cheaper. They account for variations in each patient’s physical build, gait, and specific injuries.

Neptune’s cutting-edge work draws upon his expertise in biomechanical engineering but merges it with other areas of expertise at the Cockrell School, like materials science and design and manufacturing.

While the research focuses on prosthetics and orthotics for military personnel, its applications are far-reaching and crucially timed. The number of people living with major lower limb amputations nationwide is expected to rocket over the next 40 years due to diabetes complications.

“In the end,” Neptune says, “we want to be able to understand the relationship between these design characteristics and the gait performance of the individual so that clinicians are better informed when prescribing an appropriate orthotic device or prosthetic for patients.”

Photo by Melissa Mixon 


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