This Is Plastics: The Bionic Person: Plastics Enable Mobility for Veterans and Military Working Dogs


The Bionic Person: Plastics Enable Mobility for Veterans and Military Working Dogs

In this installment of the Bionic Person series, learn how plastics are vital to building prosthetics for veterans and their canine companions.


American service members have evolved from the days of muskets, bayonets, and cannons to highly sophisticated weaponry. What has not changed is the human behind the weapon and the toll of war on both women and men, and more recently, highly trained canines on the battlefield. As demand for prosthetics and orthopedic care is expected to increase among veteran populations, prosthetics—and the versatile plastics they are made from—will become ever more important to meet rising demand. 

Not only are plastics vital to building prosthetics for veterans and their canine companions, but these products are becoming ever more important to consumers all over the world. On a global scale, the United Nations Development Program estimates that 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries, many lacking the resources to meet their need. With further innovation and the use of affordable and durable plastics, demand for prosthetics can be met. 

Rapid prototyping with plastics reduces time to market

In the past, prototyping required significant time and capital to accomplish what is today done in a fraction of the time. Furthermore, the proliferation of low-cost machines and relative ease of acquisition has meant that poorer countries are more readily capable of accessing world-class technology to aid in their own development. Additionally, materials have become cheaper. Instead of using wood or metal, prototypes now utilize various plastic polymers that increase comfort and reduce weight and cost. 

Innovations like additive manufacturing, which is the process of creating a three-dimensional, solid work from a digital model, makes affordable prosthetics even more accessible for people across the world. The term “additive” differentiates the process of traditional machining, which focuses on removing or altering material through subtractive processes like drilling, scoring, and planning. 

First developed by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp, additive manufacturing, also called 3-D printing, has transformed the pace of innovation through rapid prototyping of concepts and designs to fully functional products and devices. This new technology has also reduced the overall time-to-market for mobility enabling products, innovations, and applications. The net result is the availability of high-quality prosthetics deployable to both civilians and veterans alike.

3-D printing relies on versatile plastic polymers, like the thermoplastic acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which enables the manufacture of inexpensive, durable products like Lego bricks. This novel and important technology has been pertinent for the advancement of prosthetics. Spanish industrial engineer Guillermo Martinez has provided prosthetic arms to the world’s poorest countries through his company Ayúdame 3D, allowing more of the world’s most vulnerable population to have access to life-changing innovations. This is how plastics are supporting innovation and ensuring that prosthetics are accessible for all who need them. 

Military working dogs and canine companions benefit from plastic prosthetics

Not only are 3-D printing innovations making prosthetics more available for people throughout the world, but they are also helping retired military canines to stay active even after injury. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has continuously supported canines during rehabilitation and military working dogs after retirement. There are over 2,700 active military service dogs and many more in retirement. Data estimates that each dog saves 150-200 human lives throughout its service. Service dogs have also played a crucial role in rehabilitating veterans with limb loss or limb differences or who require assistance in hearing, guiding, and mobility. 

In the United Kingdom, the stories of Kuno, a multipurpose canine in the British Armed forces, and U.S. military combat dog Layka, highlight the role of prosthetics for service animals. Kuno’s job involved finding explosives, locating weapons caches, and engaging enemies in combat. After being injured in battle, Kuno was awarded a medal and was retired. He now enjoys his retirement in a pair of custom prosthetic legs designed by OrthoPets. After surviving an attack and saving her team members, Layka underwent seven hours of surgery and the amputation of one leg. She now uses a prosthetic to stay active. 

Additive manufacturing innovations and durable and versatile plastic polymers have given these canines a second life. Plastics are vital to ensuring that prosthetics are available for all humans, and their canine companions. 

The merge of man and machine represents one of the 21st century’s most important advances in healthcare. Plastics, a crucial ingredient in much medical safety and critical care technology, revolutionizes the way prostheses and orthotics are designed, fabricated, and ultimately used to regain mobility.

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