Three-dimensional printing is the latest technological marvel that seems to be straight out of Star Trek. In a few short years, what started with the production of simple items such as plastic whistles has progressed to the bioprinting of skin, bone, and heart tissue for human transplantation. In Australia, 3D printing has been used to produce horseshoes.
In 2013, John Barnes, Titanium Technologies Leader at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Victoria, produced a set of titanium racing plates to correspond with that year's celebration of the Melbourne Cup Carnival. Barnes, an American who studied at Purdue University in Indiana, thought it would be a good way to promote the capabilities of using a scanner to produce custom-printed horseshoes instead of the traditional computer-assisted drawing (CAD) software.
“The hand-held scanner is pretty advanced, so it picks up what you want and then you can trim the file electronically if need be,” Barnes explained. “Scanners are advancing rapidly and becoming easier to use, primarily from the push in 3D printing.”
Australian trainer John Moloney offered one of his racehorses to be the guinea pig. To assure the horse's anonymity, it was dubbed “Titanium Prints” for the media. The lightweight titanium shoes were widely touted as a way to make racehorses faster, but they never caught on.
“It was decided not to go with the plates, we went back to the old plates,” Moloney said.
“It was never meant to be a competitive shoe, but we've fielded many inquiries from all over the world on what might be possible,” Barnes said of the publicity stunt. “The durability would be quite good. Aluminum is tough to compete with for racing because, while titanium is light, aluminum is lighter yet, so it becomes a [thickness] issue and then whether it gets too thin to do its primary job of protecting the hoof.”
Barnes's cohort in the experiment was equine podiatrist Dr. Luke Wells-Smith at Equine Podiatry and Lameness Centre in New South Wales. Wells-Smith realized the therapeutic value of scanning a foot to produce a custom-fitted shoe for his laminitic patients.
The first horse to benefit was a severely laminitic pony named Holly, whom Wells-Smith had been nurturing for some time. Using the 3D scanner and information from X-rays, he designed and printed a full rocker shoe to help improve Holly's hoof health and stabilize her laminitic episodes.
Holly was returned to the care of her home veterinarian and farrier, and three years later, the pony is still doing well.
“I think the shoes were reset numerous times, which speaks for the durability of titanium,” Wells-Smith said.
The podiatrist continues to work with 3D-printed shoes for horses with other foot problems.
“We have designed multiple shoes for a range of horses in different disciplines,” he said. “A wide-webbed, rolled-toe plastic shoe was designed for a Warmblood dressage horse with a broken back hoof-pastern axis. Further, shoes similar to Holly's were printed in plastic to treat two other ponies with laminitis. A unique design technique was used to alleviate pedal-bone pressure in a severely laminitic broodmare. This 3D-printed shoe had very promising results, and the shoe was designed specifically around the radiographs for this horse.”
Renowned equine podiatrist Dr. Ric Redden is one of Wells-Smith's mentors. Redden has spent his career perfecting forged specialty shoes for horses with laminitis and other hoof problems, so he said he will stick with hammer and anvil.
“My entire line of mechanical enhanced shoes are the product of years of research and development, as I have sought ways to reverse the forces that are responsible for mechanically inhibiting circulation to the structural components that can quickly destroy the foot and even the life of laminitic cases,” he said. “Rockered properly and fitted to the properly trimmed foot, they can meet high mechanical requirements reusing deep digital tension up to 60 percent. At this level they can have potent medical benefits, and they have saved the careers and lives of countless cases, many presented as hopeless and a loss cause.
“The 3D printing is very interesting and it holds a lot of promise for those who do not design, forge, and eventually manufacture shoes for sensitive therapeutic cases. Luke [Wells-Smith] is one of my most-advanced students, and he is doing a great job carrying the torch.”
3D Racing Plates?
Wells-Smith now has turned his attention to producing an improved version of Barnes' 3D-printed racing plates.
“Titanium is lightweight and durable, which can be advantageous when racing,” he said. “However, many other products can be utilized, such as plastic and aluminum in 3D printing. Not only can we use materials that are lightweight, we can also use design techniques to minimize the overall mass of the shoe. I think at this point in time, it is difficult to estimate the benefit of 3D printing on performance. If we can improve foot health by designing, manufacturing, and applying shoes that preserve the sensitive structures of the foot, we could have horses less prone to injury and lameness over their racing career.
“In terms of 3D printing shoes for the racehorse, watch this space! We have new designs for dealing with heel soreness and promising new composites to reduce concussion while at fast work and are also using weight-optimization concepts.
“This technology is moving quickly and much of what we have will be revealed in the near future, no doubt.”
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