In the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Javelin, a TriMech company, the Professional Services team uses their expertise and equipment to 3D print custom corrective helmets to treat babies with abnormal head shapes.
It’s typical for a newborn to have an abnormal head shape caused by the birth process. If significant flat spots or abnormal shaping are still present after a few months, intervention might be prescribed.
One treatment is cranial remolding (or cranial orthosis) with corrective helmet therapy. Each helmet is custom-made, based on a digital scan of the child’s head. The helmet works with the natural growth of the infant and the void space inside redirects head growth. The treatment is used to correct cosmetic deformity, realign facial asymmetry, and (in rare cases) prevent vision and hearing concerns. Another consideration is making sure sports helmets fit later in life.
Benefits of a 3D Printed Helmet
Becki Westover is a certified orthotist. In her work at Appletree Orthotic Services in Burlington, Ontario, Becki specializes in providing personalized care and a unique helmet; 100% of her work is treating misshapen heads. Historically, Becki sent head scans to a centralized manufacturer. Though the helmets work, there are drawbacks, including long turnaround times and unnecessarily thick features.
Whenever possible, Becki prefers to have helmets 3D printed at Javelin. Javelin’s Advanced Manufacturing Center is close by in Oakville, Ontario and has the capabilities she needs. “The main reason I like the 3D-printed helmet is that the baby doesn’t get as hot as she would with the traditional material. Parents are less nervous about their child perspiring, and we can minimize heat rash. Skin issues are easier to manage.” Also, with bulky helmets, there is sometimes a temporary delay in gross motor development.
A child wears the helmet 23 hours each day, for three to four months, depending on the age of the child and how fast they grow. In addition to negating perspiration, the 3D-printed helmet is lower profile and lighter. All of this, Becki says, means that treatment goes smoother. “If it looks cooler and feels cooler, we get better compliance, better outcomes, and the child is out of the helmet sooner.”
FDM Technology for Accuracy and Strength
Precision and durability are key to fit and function. Javelin's specialists turn to Stratasys 3D printers using Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, which works with engineering-grade thermoplastics (in this case, either ABS or ASA) to build strong, long-lasting, accurate helmets.
Several colors are available and Becki adds a choice of strap design. The helmets are usually produced in just two to three days, getting infants in corrective devices sooner and accelerating the treatment process.
In addition to a quick turnaround time, these 3D-printed helmets fit better on the first try with fewer physical modifications needed than with traditional vacuum-formed versions. Becki adds final critical details to the helmets by introducing pads that ensure fit and comfort while allowing for growth over time.
Designing for additive manufacturing (DFAM) is a skill Becki has had to learn. In 2019, before venturing into 3D printing, she and her colleague Sam spent a lot of time with Javelin’s Conner Janeteas “talking shop.”
“We discussed scanning, printing, and what services Javelin could provide,” Becki said. “Conner assessed our needs and recommended the right technology – in one case it was a scanning technology that Javelin didn’t even provide. His team provided significant support in developing a workflow, validating our designs, choosing the right material, and helping us understand the impact of design decisions on the printing process.”
Each month, Becki sends between five and 15 helmets to Javelin for printing. She said it has been a steep curve lately, with increasing numbers of helmets needed.
“Javelin is great, very quick, and we always have good communication. Conner considers the needs of Appletree and our patients first. He freely offers insight and suggestions, which are invaluable to me as I navigate the CAD world with little context or experience. He gives extra help he’s not required to give and that’s always appreciated.”
Becki is proud of Appletree’s ability to improve families’ lives. She and her colleagues recognize that every family is different and listen carefully to each of them. “My own daughter had a mild plagiocephaly; she was not treated using a helmet, but I feel that I have a better connection with the parents of my patients since I experienced this firsthand. This treatment works to round out an infant’s head and takes away parents’ worries about their child’s future.”
*Photos supplied by Appletree Orthotics and used with parental consent.
Want to learn more about the impact of 3D printing on the medical industry? Watch our on-demand webinar, How 3D Printing is Disrupting the Medical Industry.