In August 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen titled Why Software Is Eating the World. If that concept was controversial at the time, five years later it seems painfully obvious. We have Uber changing transportation, Airbnb changing rentals, and a million unsung software engineers in nearly every industry.
How is software going to improve orthotics and prosthetics? We started Standard Cyborg to answer this question for O&P. Our thesis is software is the answer to creating great, custom-fitting medical devices, at scale, globally, and this is in our DNA as engineers and wed with my experience as a patient.
Every orthotic and prosthetic device has the piece that actually fits up against the body. In prosthetics, we call this the socket.
The goal of a socket is to transition the patient’s body weight comfortably through the gait cycle and for long periods of ambulation. This is not a trivial thing to get right. Comfort is usually patient specific and therefore subjective.
For all these reasons, a really great prosthetic socket can take a lot of time and effort to get right—yet it is also the most critical element of the system. A car is useless with a good steering wheel, a smartphone is useless without a touchscreen. Bad or non-existent interfaces are non-starters.
Globally, O&P is hurting. We are simply not training enough practitioners to address the demand. With the global middle class coming online, hundreds of millions of people need custom medical devices. Addressing this market with current efficiencies is untenable.
Working hand-in-hand with practitioners, we designed a 3D solution that massively improves clinical efficiency.
Residual limb impressions used to be done with plaster wrap and take 30 minutes or more. Now we can 3D scan in 30 seconds or less.
Modifying the impression to make it comfortable used to be done with a hand file and take 30 minutes or more. Now it can be done digitally, from any computer in the world on the web, in 10 minutes or less with no mess and no cost.
Of course, any system is crippled without an output, and digital manufacturing, specifically 3D printing, provides a labor-less and inexpensive way to bring these creations to life.
Digital design and manufacturing, though, is in its infancy, and there is a huge blue ocean of opportunity. Right now, we are using CAD (computer-aided-design) mainly as a documentation tool, but the computer isn’t aiding very much. That will change. Right now, we use 3D printing to mimic the shapes that have been created with conventional fabrication for 100 years. That will definitely change.
Fundamentally, web software allows us to do one thing really well: Listen to our customers and improve the product for them overnight. Einstein is reported as saying: “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” Two percent improvement every day may feel small, but 1320× better every year is obvious. That’s the secret of the power of software to change the world.