Laser technology fits difficult feet
Using lasers to create 3-D images of feet allows for much easier and more accurate manufacture of shoes than conventional methods. The technology will revolutionise production of orthopaedic shoes and also has the potential to stimulate European manufacture of high-quality custom-made shoes. Background People of all ages may, at some time, need special shoes as a result of accident, illness or an inherited condition. Conventional orthopaedic shoes are awkward and unpopular, especially with the young. They are also difficult to fit, and require numerous measurements and adjustments to give real mobility and relief from pain. A system developed in France uses the interruption of laser beams to give a perfect 3-D image of the foot. A computer system stores the image information digitally and can be linked to an automated unit for manufacturing shoe templates. Description, impact and results The foot digitiser is a portable system normally used by a qualified orthopaedist. The patient's foot rests on a rectangular plate within the digitiser and interrupts laser beams from the top, back and sides. The unit must measure the foot precisely and quickly, as many patients cannot stand for long. The computer-generated image of the foot is converted into digital data and stored in a CAD/CAM system, which can later be linked to an automated system for manufacturing shoe templates. The resulting shoe will be a perfect fit, with no need for the usual fittings and adjustments. It should also be comfortable, stylish and not cumbersome. The whole process cuts the delays and difficulties common to traditional orthopaedic shoe fitting. It also makes cost savings by avoiding repeated fittings by specialist orthopaedists - a long-term concern for the national health and social welfare services responsible for funding special shoes. The other great potential for the digitiser is that it could be used by retailers of non-medical, custom-made shoes at the luxury end of the market. It is easy to use and would need no special training or modification to record a customer's foot profile. The recorded digital data could be passed to the manufacturer for production of shoes of a perfect fit at the top of the range. This could be just the stimulus needed by the European shoe industry to rekindle the market for custom-made shoes of the highest quality in response to the influx of cheap shoes from Asia currently depressing the market. Working partnerships The project was led by the French research consultancy CETIOP (Conseil-Expertises Technologies Industrielles Organisation de Production), working closely with the French footwear manufacturer Gabilly. Guidance on orthopaedic measuring and their own national footwear markets came from Buratto (Italy), BT (Germany) and De Pretre (Belgium). Buratto also has some experience of measuring footprints using computer technology. However, full development of the system was made possible by the European Union's CRAFT programme, which enables groups of small companies with no research resources to subcontract to specialists, with EU support. The CRAFT project `Dilaco - Laser digitalisation for orthopaedic shoes' introduced four new French partners who collaborated to bring the results into commercial production: the research organisations Ens-Cachan and IFMA developed the laser system and its software, Strategies produced the CAD/CAM system to store the digital measurement data, and Elmetherm built a prototype digitiser and prepared for manufacture of the final product. The partners have now formed a new French company and hope to begin production in 2001.