unique orthopaedic devices

When will the Plaster Room and Plastics Technician become extinct?

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Automation and new technology is here and it is thought that in the next 15 years over 10 million workers jobs will be directly affected in the UK, of which 7.5% are in the manufacturing industries. The idea that a job is for life is not true for most of us and our industry is certainly not immune to this.

I suggest you give the independent Future of Work Commission a read, led by Tom Watson MP it details how the UK will deal with the new technological revolution. ‘Automation and Artificial Intelligence will create as many jobs as they destroy?’ I am largely apprehensive of this statement and we have seen little in policy or reform to set these doubts aside.

The principles of work are valuable. Work should provide dignity, should offer security, should promote autonomy, and work should be available to everyone. I will not get into the real politics of this, or the wider impact of the broadening separation and vulnerability of the low skilled vs high skilled manual worker, but the reality is innovations in digitisation, computing, artificial intelligence and robotics are already transforming our economy and labour market. The scope and pace of the current technological revolution is likely to surpass anything that has gone before.

Recent advances make it possible to automate a much greater range of tasks than those enabled by previous developments. This means that the current wave of automation will reach into sections of our economy that have traditionally been considered “safe”, including high skilled jobs which involve complex cognitive / analytic tasks alongside manual labour skills. Therefore all our P&O Technicians are at some point going to be vulnerable, but the one role that logically seems most at risk is the Technician.

Plaster work or more accurately the treatment of the negative to positive cast, is not always traditionally the work of the Technician, often In-house Orthotists and nearly all Prosthetists oversee the treatment and rectification of their own cast. In some manufacturing P&O clinicians have had the ability to scan, rectify digitally and have a carver produce the positive mould, leaving the Technician to only mould over, trim, finish and final assembly. The latter in some countries is still the domain and job requirement of the clinician, from cast to final assembly. I think that in some cases (mainly Paediatrics) we will need to cast by hand for a while, but often companies will then still scan the negative cast.

At present the main threat is largely going to be 3D printing, as this completely removes a large percentage if not all traditional manufacturing time, whilst running all night to produce an arguably more architecturally advanced, lighter product; reducing the Technician input to clean up of holding tabs and assembly. More recently however and with advances in 3D printers, the level of finish requires little if any clean up from removal off the printer before assembly. With the ability of 24h unmanned manufacture, delivering less waste and quicker production, it makes sense from a business standpoint to adopt 3D printing and leapfrog the Technician straight to clinician. Geographically hard to reach locations could easily have a single clinician running assessment, manufacture and supply.

Looking at this with a wider lens however; the ease at which devices can now be manufactured means an explosion of viral videos showing parents producing orthoses for their own children and overnight being deemed an expert!? Expert at what? Technician, Clinician? I do think we need to take ownership of this now and before it runs away from our industry.

A possible light at the end of the tunnel is an interesting hybrid, like that of the Create O&P company, where the client scan is then rectified with tools through the use of VR headsets. The Technician will actively rectify the render with a VR headset, a virtual surform if you like and then print. I am not entirely convinced by this workflow, but it may keep our Technicians in a job and could technically be deemed to still have a ‘hands on approach’. Useful maybe as a training platform and the plaster room would undoubtedly be cleaner.

I think however the future is more likely to resemble SME’s like 3D LifePrints who are embedded into the NHS with their 3D printing hubs. This allows multiple clinicians from varying specialities to utilise the printers on site.  This coal face production is likely to yield better results and promote creative thinking amongst all professionals. We can often be blinkered and seeing how other professionals are using this 3D printing technology  in a hub is likely to expand the horizons of what we are capable of producing, whilst problem solving as a collective.

So the question is, from the initial scan who is going to take ownership of the rectification to final assembly? Will we still see it being at the hands of the Technicians with re-training, cross industry technicians in SME embedded hubs, or the P & O Department? How does the next 15 years look for you?

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