All about 3D printed prosthetics
3D printing has revolutionized manufacturing at the micro-scale. In addition to helping hobbyists and small business owners develop practical solutions from the comfort of their homes, 3D printing has also changed the medical landscape in the field of prosthetics.
The impact of 3D printing on the medical sector
Additive manufacturing has already demonstrated massive benefits for medical applications. The customizability of and lowered barriers to accessing 3D printed parts has allowed medical device manufacturers to help more and more people every year. Although we haven’t quite reached this level of a sci-fi techno-utopia quite yet, 3D printing is even being researched for its potential to replace human organ transplants.
Maybe we can’t 3D print a working organic heart quite yet, but we have been able to design and manufacture articulable limbs and prosthetic supports. Strides in this field have been able to massively increase the quality of life for many people.
Advantages of 3D printing for medical manufacturing
Traditional prosthetics are expensive (and 3D printed prosthetics don’t have to be)
Since the advent of 3D printing–facilitated medical engineering, problems are constantly being solved while nearly as many challenges are being identified. According to LIMBS International, an NGO focusing on equity in prosthetic access, only approximately 5% of the over 40 million amputees in developing nations have access to prosthetic devices or mobility assistance.
There has been an explosion of companies and organizations attempting to utilize generative design and additive manufacturing with the aim of improving the appearance, longevity, and functionality of prosthetics. Some of these groups have set their sights on breaking down the cost barriers to these technologies and making them more accessible to poor communities and patients in developing countries. In so many fields, cutting costs on a product is correlated with diminishing the value of the labor and materials that go into that product. Those spearheading the 3D printed prosthetics movement are opposed to this approach—instead, the goal is to bring functional, high-quality devices to those who need them.
Additive manufacturing requires only the cost of materials and labor for designing and testing, while traditional manufacturing for medical devices typically requires cast and mold costs. A simpler production mechanism means that prosthetics can be delivered more quickly and at a lower cost than their traditional counterparts.
Considering the relatively small sizes of most 3D printers and required work areas compared to traditional manufacturing tools, it’s no wonder that rapid prototyping using 3D printing has taken off. The ability to quickly manufacture testable equipment with relatively accurate time and material cost estimates has changed the game for designers.
Ask nearly any 3D printing hobbyist what their favorite things about this technology are and you’re likely to hear that customizability is one of 3D printing’s major advantages. Medical device designers are no different. Making custom prosthetics for an individual’s unique situation not only makes the end product far more useful but can also support the person in their daily life far better than a stock prosthetic. If one person needs an articulable wrist on a hand prosthetic, they are more likely to get exactly what they need from a manufacturer that can design a prosthetic with their exact needs and measurements in mind.
Outlooks in 3D printed prosthetics
As mentioned earlier, several organizations and companies have been tackling research and production in the realm of 3D printed prosthetics to improve production efficiency and promote accessibility. We compiled a few of the coolest projects from around the globe.
Meet Millie, the greyhound with a 3D printed prosthetic leg (Australia)
Millie the greyhound, Australia’s first dog with a prosthetic limb. (Source: Dylan Robinson)
Millie was a four-year-old rescue who was abandoned as a puppy due to an issue with her front paw. While prosthetics for animals are nothing new, they are extremely cost prohibitive. When Millie’s parents tried to support her after her paw was amputated, they were staring down a bill of over $10,000 with no guarantee that she would take to the new limb. Traditional prosthetics have been miraculous for many (humans and non-humans alike), but due to their lack of customizability and the high cost of modification, it’s common for traditional prosthetics to cause pain and discomfort at the site of connection or even worsen existing problems elsewhere in the body.
Enter Autodesk, a giant in 3D modeling and CAD software. Using Fusion 360, Millie’s parents had a new, well-fitting prosthetic designed with her measurements. They had the prosthetic printed for a far lower price tag than any conventional prosthetic, and Millie can now sprint around with no discomfort and a leg up on life.
Hero Arm (UK with global distribution)
If you were into sci-fi growing up, chances are you’ve thought about what it would be like to be a bionic or cybernetic being. As technology progresses, these concepts are becoming less a work of fantasy and more of a reality.
Hero Arm, an Open Bionics project, is helping bring back mobility and confidence to people with below-elbow limb differences. Using a specialized 3D printing technology, they develop advanced prosthetics with Nylon PA12 for children and adults. These prosthetics have multi-grip and myoelectric functionality, meaning that the electric impulses sent by the user’s muscles can be read by the prosthetic to allow articulation. This project and the numerous people it has helped demonstrates that 3D printing technology can do more than serve a purely functional role—it can empower people in a variety of situations by promoting their agency and restoring their confidence.
Ayúdame3D is bringing custom-built prosthetics to rural and remote areas (Spain with global distribution)
Ayúdame3D, a name referencing the word meaning “help me” in Spanish, is a 3D prosthetic printing organization that focuses on bringing custom prosthetics to underserved areas around the world.
Guillermo Martínez, one of the project’s founders, was first enraptured by the design advantages and challenges associated with 3D printing. Then, he and his fellow designers began working on developing functional prosthetics using PLA for a handful of people in Kenya. After the first users of Ayúdame3D’s printed limbs reported back on their functionality and benefits, the group dove headfirst into acquiring funding to design and produce a variety of prosthetics to distribute globally. This project is unique in that they don’t sell these prosthetics; instead, they focus on high-needs communities and use donations to provide these life-changing devices free of charge.
Feedback-capable 3D printed arm (UK)
Two years ago, design student Lorenzo Spreafico realized that emerging prosthetic research severely lacked a focus on tactile feedback. Sure, new technologies allowed users to send mechanical signals to fingers to improve grip strength and mobility, but Spreafico was more interested in using this as a basis for helping users experience touch again.
After a lot of trial and error, he devised a functional prosthetic arm that is equipped with a tactile feedback system named the T1. Pressure sensors are installed at the tip of each finger of the prosthetic limb, allowing the user to receive vibrotactile feedback after touching something. Similar technologies are not being developed for commercial use, and those that are even close to consumer markets still sit above the $30,000 range. Spreafico’s design is currently available at around $3,800 (£3,000) with the potential for an even lower price tag as the design continues to be improved.
3D printing the road to the future
The future of 3D printing in the field of medical technology is certainly bright. Additive manufacturing has been demonstrated to be widely beneficial in communities around the globe, and shifting basic design and manufacturing access from massive corporations to the hands of every day people is changing lives every day.