THEY look like items from a special effects department at a film studio.
But these synthetically-formed body parts are, in fact, the makings of a revolution in the medical world.
And they’re being created right here, in South Yorkshire. Just off the Parkway, in fact.
Here, at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham, the Fripp Design team are busy refining a technological development that will improve the lives of thousands of people across the UK.
Put bluntly, the team have developed a way of printing bespoke body parts.
It sounds like a modern version of Frankenstein but it’s not, Fripp have simply taken an industrial process - three-dimensional printing - and applied it to the medical world, using bio-compatible medical materials already used in health care.
And they create hand-made prosthetic body parts for people who have suffered facial deformities through trauma or cancer.
Tom Fripp, aged 29, the brains behind it all, says: “We have taken an industrial process and apply it to the medical world. Prosthetic body parts are currently hand-made in the medical world, which takes a long time to create a body part. With this we can print a batch of 120 within a matter of hours.”
And while the production rate of the body parts is much higher compared with the current hand-crafted method, the parts themselves are as bespoke and unique as their hand-crafted counterparts.
Rather than taking ‘impressions’ of the patient’s body using medical putty or clay in order to determine the size and shape of the required prosthetic body part, Fripp Design’s approach simply requires patients to sit in front of a three-dimensional camera, with lenses taking extremely detailed, close-up images of their face or body. The process is painless and takes only a matter of seconds.
“It is extremely painful for trauma victims to have an impression of their face or body taken, as it takes a long time and involves painful physical contact. With the 3D camera there is no contact and takes only a matter of seconds. It’s painless too - improving their quality of life enormously.”
There is also a sense of urgency to Fripp’s work - there are fewer and fewer people training to become prosthetic technicians and the quality of technicians, and therefore the prosthetic parts themselves, varies across the country. The three-dimensional imaging and printing system, on the other hand, is consistent and accurate. Wrinkles and textural details are manually applied post-print.
The project, known as The Advanced Manufacture of Soft Tissue Prosthetics was inspired by a conversation between Tom and a teaching assistant from the dentistry department at the University of Sheffield, with whom Fripp Design are collaborating on the project.
And such are the implications of the research that the Welcome Trust awarded the design team a funding grant of £500,000 to see it through.
The process is potentially revolutionary.
“It will mean that people can have a new body part made within hours using the same data, if they break their existing prosthetic body part.”
Fripp’s advanced research into such mind-blowing technology is funded by their work as a product design and business consultancy. Fripp help to develop, licence and manufacture intellectual property, taking ideas from concept to, in some cases, the shop floor.
Sue Roberts, who works at Fripp, says: “We’ve worked on a range of products such as sports equipment, table flags for restaurants, pallet covers to the design of this year’s Comic Relief Red Nose.
“Product design is our bread and butter money,” says Tom. “It allows us to put money into research such as the prosthetic body parts.”
Considering the enormous implications of Fripp’s developments to the medical world, and, more specifically, trauma and cancer victims, it is hard to believe that this slick and innovative operation started in Sue’s conservatory.
Tom moved to Sheffield to be a student and, during his BA, developed a product that had commercial potential.
He met Sue’s husband, Steve, through the university’s enterprise scheme. Steve drew up a business plan for Tom and the two joined forces.
“We were based in my conservatory in Dore for a while. You hear these stories about people starting with nothing but that’s actually what we did,” she said. But the purchase of the enormous three-dimensional printer changed all that.
In order to house the colossal printer - so crucial to Fripp’s future development - the company relocated into Sheffield city centre and then, eventually, into a spacious, modern unit at the Advanced Manufacturing Park.
And now it’s all hands on deck to refine the three-dimensional printing for prosthetic body parts. Who knows, perhaps this time in five years the medical world will see a small revolution - because of a modest Rotherham firm.