3D-printed foot brings back duck's waddle

With a little bit of silicon and a 3D printer, Buttercup the duck is now waddling around Feathered Angels Sanctuary. When Buttercup hatched on November 12, 2012 his left foot was turned backwards. Employees at the Arlington, Tenn. waterfowl sanctuary had the innovative idea to create a prosthetic foot for the duck.

Sanctuary owner Mike Garey designed the foot using computer modeling and created the foot using his unique molding process. Local 3D printing company Novacopy printed the plastic model that Garey used to mold the foot.

Tim Caffrey, a 20-year veteran of 3D printing who now works with Wohlers Associates, talked CBSNews.com through the process. He was not involved in this printing, but says that once a model is designed and mold is printed (not the actual prosthetic). This is because 3D printing materials are still limited. To attain the combination of flexibility and strength required for a foot, Garey most likely poured a vulcanizing rubber material into the silicon mold, Caffrey said. In a Facebook journal tracking the process, Feathered Angels posted photos and videos of each step.

As soon as the foot was ready, Garey slid it on over Buttercup's mangled left foot, using a nylon sock to attach the prosthetic. He carried Buttercup outside, and captured his first steps on camera. Shot at night, the video is dark, but viewers can see that Buttercup is shaky at first. Within a couple of minutes, he picks up his pace, clearly adapting to the new foot.

The red cast-like prosthetic looks thick and slightly clunky next to Buttercup's natural right leg, but by the end of the nearly five-minute clip, the duck's gait looks nearly normal. Garey posted several clearer videos the next day, including the one shown here.

Caffrey estimates the full printing process, including the cost of labor for the mold maker, would come to about $5,000.

This is the latest novelty item to stem from 3D printing. "This type of thing happens a little more regularly in the medical world as well, with respect to scanning body parts that are missing or scanning the opposite body part that's missing," Caffrey explained.

In June 2011, a Netherlands woman received the world's first full jaw transplant. The lower half of her jaw was created using a 3D-printed mold. Last year, the Boise-based Kinetic Engineering Group modeled and printed a new beak for a mangled bald eagle.

Earlier this year, a South African man designed the "robohand," a mechanical hand that helps people who have lost fingers to clasp objects. The majority of the hand was printed on a 3D printer.

Formally known as additive manufacturing, the first 3D-printing systems were created in 1988. While there are several commercial models available, Caffrey warns that at-home machines, which sell for about $2,000 to $5,000, do not print at the same professional quality as the 3D printers utilized in professional industries such as health and aeronautics.

In other words, while anyone can download the designs for the duck foot, it takes a professional-grade printer to create the mold for prosthetics like the left foot that saved Buttercup's stride.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that Garey developed and designed the foot. Credit was originally given to NovaCopy.

  • Danielle Elliot On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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