BMW IS OFFERING workers at its Munich car plant 3D printed prosthetic "super thumbs" to reduce stress on their joints.
The thumbs, which are made of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), are custom made by scanning each worker's hand with a mobile hand scanner and then 3D printing the result layer by layer, producing a perfect second skin that combines safety and comfort.
Many jobs on a car production line involve pushing rubber plugs or other insertions into holes in bodywork, which has to be done manually. The tension of the snug fit required can cause excessive strain on thumb joints and so a solution was sought.
Although TPU's natural state is to be limp and floppy, its elastic qualities allow it to be processed in such a way as to form a splint.
The flexible prosthetics encourage stiffness in the appendage when held at the correct angle, without causing unnecessary strain. Traditional thumb joints often lose tension and have difficulty entering the hole.
Professor Peter Buckle, head of the Robens Centre of Health Ergonomics at the University of Surrey told the BBC, "There are many things that can cause stress like this, including posture and the number of times they do a task."
It is not the first time that substances other than plastic have been used in 3D printing. At CES this year, a 3D food printer was demonstrated, capable of printing sugar solution into confectionery.
Earlier this year the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) told The INQUIRER that it believed that the rise of 3D printing and low cost tablets would see an end to paper printing in the next few years.
The BMW trial is part of a dissertation project undertaken by students at the Department of Ergonomics at the Technical University of Munich. However we wonder if they might have thought up the idea in the student bar as a wind-up to see how far they could push the innuendos. µ