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Are 3D printed titanium horseshoes the future of racing?

Anvil, forge, foot rest, rasp… the basic tools of the trade for farriers have hardly changed for generations. But is that essential toolkit about to be transformed? Are 3D scanners and titanium horseshoes about to take off in a big way? Here’s why this technology could be one to watch for the future…

What is 3D titanium printing?

3D printing is a catch-all term to describe a range of technologies that use computer modelling to reproduce three dimensional objects.

A variant of this, 3D titanium printing, is a high-tech, extremely accurate form of metal fabrication. A technician builds a model via a computer and this model is divided into separate, extremely fine layers. The file is then downloaded to a machine that uses an optic laser to perform the construction process. Layer by several micrometre-thick layer, titanium powder is dispensed and materialised to form the physical item in question according to the exact spec of the computer model.

It’s popular in bio-medical tech, and in fact, we’ve recently seen prosthetic 3D-printed titanium ribcage and sternum successfully implanted in a cancer patient. It’s already been put to work in sport, where examples include 3D printed snowboards and shoe base plates to help give NFL players a faster edge.

How 3D printing met equine care…

Back in 2013, the first big equine developments in this area emerged from the Australian-based Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The guinea pig was a horse dubbed ‘Titanium Prints’, whose hooves were scanned with a 3D scanner. Modelling software was then used to design what CSIRO described as “the perfect fitting, lightweight racing shoes”. The scanning procedure itself took a matter of minutes and Titanium Prints had four brand new customised shoes a few hours later.

With this first announcement, the emphasis was very much on speed; not just in terms of production but also racing performance. Crucial to this is the fact that titanium shoes could represent a weight reduction of up to 50 percent compared to aluminium plates.

The next step forward from CSIRO highlighted the possible veterinary applications of the technology. This time, the lucky recipient was Holly, who had been suffering from laminitis for several years. Her forward-thinking farrier was aware of CSIRO’s work and commissioned their team to produce a ‘horse-thotic’ variant.

3D scanning coupled with customised production combined to result in a set of shoes designed to redistribute weight away from painful areas. This raises the possibility of bespoke titanium horseshoes designed to help rehabilitation for a wide range of foot diseases.

A game changer?

Seabiscuit notched up his tally of wins wearing aluminium plates in the 1930s; doing his bit to raise the profile of what was at the time a very recent development. Yet eight decades on, aluminium horseshoes still haven't completely replaced steel. There’s a quid pro quo with aluminium; with a lightweight build comes a tendency to wear out extremely rapidly and a higher cost over the long term.  

Titanium goes one further than offering the best of both worlds; it’s actually lighter than aluminium and more hard wearing than steel.

Then there’s the matter of knowing precisely what you’re getting. 3D printing, which is essentially a high-tech, precisely controlled layering process, eliminates the possibility of metal weakness and flaws. Production is completely automated and is exact within a matter of micrometres, In theory, if you asked the computer to replicate literally thousands of versions of the same model, you know that they will all be absolutely identical.  

Will titanium horseshoes become the new standard?

Even when this technology moves beyond the prototype stage and into a wider arena, don’t expect studs to decide overnight to shod their entire stock with it.

Titanium is expensive and the 3D printing process is in itself a specialist process. In its early days, this is likely to be considered primarily as a rehabilitation aid, with made-to-measure titanium horseshoes taking their place alongside other high-tech tools (think MRI scans for instance) as something to turn to when there’s a specific problem to be addressed.

But will we eventually see titanium horseshoes as a go-to solution to improve the performance of healthy horses? It’s foreseeable. The model may be along the lines of farriers taking readings via handheld scanners and pinging the data off to a specialist manufacturing centre.

It depends how quickly the technology moves forward, but it’s not completely out of the question to suggest that the offspring of your current foals could be 3D titanium-shod as a matter of routine.