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New technology for sustainable foot prostheses

Foto der drei steptics Gründer

Osnabrück/Munich. Accidents, illnesses, or war injuries: There are numerous reasons why prosthetic feet are necessary. However, conventional manufacturing is costly, energy-intensive and the prices are correspondingly high – many people, particularly in countries of the Global South and in war and conflict zones around the world, cannot afford the necessary prosthetic replacement. The Munich-based start-up steptics, which is funded by the German Federal Environmental Foundation, is developing a new automated process for manufacturing foot prostheses and wants to prospectively focus on the sustainability of materials to reduce energy consumption, emissions, and costs.

“Environmentally friendly, recyclable and high-quality prostheses that are affordable and accessible to all make an important contribution to a socially responsible and sustainable society,” says DBU Secretary-General Alexander Bonde. The start-up is a good example of “how the development of new technologies goes hand in hand with climate protection and social commitment,” said Bonde.

Conventional prostheses have been difficult to recycle so far

Prostheses help amputees to regain their mobility and independence. To achieve this, foot prostheses must withstand very high mechanical loads while remaining lightweight to ensure a comfortable wear. Therefore, many orthopedic aids consist of so-called fiber composites, “for example glass or carbon fibers embedded in a plastic material,” says Dr. Jörg Lefèvre, DBU expert for environmentally and health-friendly processes and products. According to him, however, the production of these materials is usually based on fossil raw materials and requires a lot of energy. Additionally, conventional prosthesis components are challenging to recycle. Furthermore, many production steps are conducted manually. “The resulting comparatively high production costs are often difficult for many people to afford, especially in areas and countries with limited access to healthcare services,” says Lefèvre.

Start-up develops automated manufacturing process for foot prostheses

Marc-Antonio Padilla, Daniel Kun and Benjamin Els – the founding team of the DBU-funded start-up steptics – want to change this and are working on an automated process for manufacturing foot prostheses. “We want to provide more people around the world with sustainable, efficient and cost-effective prosthetic feet,” says Padilla. The focus is on the lower part of the prosthesis, known as running blades, which represent part of the foot. “The process we have developed enables us to automatically adjust individual parameters such as amputation height or a person’s body weight using computer programs” explains Padilla. The young company has already successfully produced prototypes, “with significantly less energy and costs compared to the conventional manufacturing of foot prostheses,” says Padilla.

Natural fibers to replace fossil composites

The steptics team wants to go one step further and, with the help of the DBU funding, replace the fossil-based composite materials often used in prosthetic feet made of carbon or glass fibers with bio-based materials such as natural fibers. This should make the prosthetic components easier to recycle after use and, according to the startup, save half of the manufacturing costs and 90 percent of climate-damaging greenhouse gases compared to traditional manufacturing. “Sustainable and efficient production that does not rely on fossil raw materials will give many more people access to prostheses in the future and protect the climate and environment at the same time,” says Padilla.



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