The technology was first developed in the 1980s by rs scan founder Jempi Wilssens, a record-breaking athlete and engineer who wanted to help people to stay injury free. The first scanner was built from a modified photocopier and installed inside Wilssens' small sports shoe store in Belgium. By 1994, at the request of Adidas' CEO who wanted the company to be the first sports brand in the world that could advise an injury-risk-free shoe using foot measurements, a new footscan system was developed. As commercial interest grew, so did clinical applications, and as a result in 1998, rs scan International was established.
"[Wilssens] understood the necessity of orthotics, when a shoe wasn't helping enough or wasn't the right fit, so he created an insole based on an algorithm which he got from the footscan data," explains Tom Peeters, Brand Manager Phits Insoles. "It was a good insole, scientifically proven by the British Navy, and he wanted to digitise the complete process and came across 3D printing. He started experimenting but pretty soon found out that to scale and make this economically viable he would need a very solid partner to make it happen and that's when he coincidentally ran into Materialise in a research project which resulted in the first R&D of 3D printing for orthotics."
These developments, whilst signalling a technological change, also point to a shift in business models. Tom sees two possible tracks; small and medium podiatrists who will install the scan technology in house, and also larger orthopaedic groups transitioning towards 3D printing.
"These large prosthetics groups really want to start thinking about how they can transform from traditional manufacturing to a completely digitalised process with 3D printing," explains Tom. "Of course, we want to produce orthotics but it's not our purpose. Our purpose is offering the technology, the tools to provide orthotics and whether we print them and service these individual practices or we service and support the larger groups with know-how and guide the transition, we know it is coming. It is something we need to embrace, and we need to be ready to guide these people into the next level of manufacturing to a more durable and more environmentally friendly process."
But most importantly, do these devices actually work? I've been wearing mine for several weeks now, building them in gradually starting with only a few hours each day. They are comfortable, robust, fit perfectly and I can't be sure if it's too early to tell yet but the pain I was experiencing in my knees and lower legs has disappeared. Unlike the off -the-shelf pair which felt bulky and harsh these fit discreetly and are even personalised to the point of including my name within the print - a non-functional touch but a nice example of the benefits of mass customisation.
Working within this industry, I sometimes take for granted that the technology applications I see every day, whether 3D printed orthotics or medical models, are not commonplace. When I returned from collecting my insoles after a brief test walk along the Conwy harbour, I showed them to my mum. Had these technologies been readily available at the doctor's office, there is no doubt that the benefits would have outweighed the cost. Perhaps as adoption and accessibility increases within the healthcare sector, more people will be able to reap those benefits too.