Unyq enlists 3D printing to help amputees make a fashion statement

Unyq fairings

Unyq, pronounced unique, is one business that lives up to its name. In a short amount of time, the company has carved out a niche in the 3D-printed wearables market with its strikingly designed prosthetic leg covers, typically called fairings, from a polyamide material.

Founded in 2014 in San Francisco and Seville, Spain, the company has achieved considerable success by selling the custom fairings directly to consumers through its website. It is in the process of building a manufacturing facility in Charlotte, NC, that will be operational by December 2018. PlasticsToday spoke with Unyq co-founder Eythor Bender about the company’s origins and its ostensibly bright future.

“The business was started by myself and Manuel Boza in Spain,” said Bender. “We shared a vision that 3D printing was ready for our industry—medical wearables and specifically orthopedic and prosthetic products. We saw 3D printing as a tool for making things that would conform to the body,” Bender told PlasticsToday.

It is worth noting that Bender and Boza brought some very specific expertise to the budding enterprise. Bender has spent more than two decades working with the disabled and achieved a level of fame when he developed an exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to walk again. Boza is an above-knee amputee and engineer specialized in robotics.

Around the time that Bender and Boza were figuring out the contours of their business, a good friend started a company called Bespoke Innovations in San Francisco. Scott Summit, who had been a designer with Apple, created custom-fit prosthetics, orthotics and orthopedic devices. “The devices were beautiful but maybe not very affordable,” said Bender, “and we thought that combining our production methods with his product portfolio could be successful.” Summit sold Bespoke Innovations to 3D Systems in 2012. Two years later, Unyq was founded; it struck a license agreement with 3D Systems in 2015 to take ownership of all of the intellectual property related to 3D-printed prosthetics.

Unyq
Para-athlete and motivational coach Cadie Jessup.

The eye-popping designs and easy online ordering made the company an almost immediate sensation. Then it did something even more remarkable—just a few months after launching its direct-to-consumer e-commerce site, Unyq slashed the prices of all of its products by 50%. At the time, Bender explained that the size of the market, which was much larger than they had anticipated; a funding windfall that allowed the company to develop new 3D printers and related technologies; and more effective material-sourcing procedures allowed the company to pass along those savings to customers. It was a fulfillment of the company’s mission to make affordable, comfortable and well-designed prosthetics for the greatest number of people.

While other technologies are used in the post-processing of the devices, 3D printing is key to the business model. “There is a level of customization that needs to be applied to most of our devices, and 3D printing is the only technology that can affordably achieve customization and scalability,” explained Bender. He likens what Unyq is doing in orthopedic applications to how 3D printing has dramatically altered the manufacturing landscape for hearing aids and dental devices.

The company also deserves credit for advancing the consumerization of medical devices, a trend that has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years. The term applies to a changing business model, where patients, and not just healthcare purchasing groups and practitioners, are the direct customers. It also applies to product design, which has traditionally aimed for a blandly clinical appearance in the medtech space. The advent of medical wearables changed everything.

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