Widespread 3D printing and innovations in prosthetic design, manufacturing and distribution now offer a viable solution for the millions of people living with limb loss around the world. 3D printed prosthetics are gaining wider availability via open-source initiatives such as The E-Nable Community Foundation. E-Nable is a global network of passionate volunteers that let anyone with a 3D printer customise and create a prosthetic hand.
Advantages of using 3D printed prosthetics
Cost, Speed and Versatility: On average, a prosthetic has a lifespan of five years. For younger, growing children who are prone to breaking things, more frequent replacements are required. Current costs of commercially-made prosthetics range from US$5,000 to US$50,000, which makes frequent replacements difficult due to the expense. 3D printed prosthetics can reduce costs to the hundreds of dollars or less. Those on the E-Nable team are using 3D printing to give the world a helping hand, and it only costs US$50 and in a shorter time.
Traditionally, the process of getting a prosthetic limb can take anywhere from weeks to months. Now, a 3D printed prosthetic limb can usually be made in a day.
Prosthetics made from 3D printing can be easily customised, and created to suit the owner. Artistic, rugged, and specialty designs have been made to suit specific activity use, including outdoor activities such as biking. This level of customisability would cost a fortune with current prosthetics.
Growth and Comfort: For children who require prosthetics, replacing the limb to keep pace with the child’s rate of growth until he or she reaches maturity can be an expensive process. Many insurance companies balk at paying for prosthetics for children because they outgrow the limbs so quickly. It is not easy for families to pay out US$10,000 or so every year, or every other year. The ease of production and the much lower cost of 3D prosthetics make it a much more attractive option. In addition, stretchable and expandable 3D prosthetics may soon be available for children. Such a device could “grow” with the child.
Many physically unique wearers of conventional prosthetic limbs experience prosthetic socket discomfort. Research undertaken by a doctoral student at MIT involves the design and production of a more comfortable 3D printed prosthetic socket. This would make 3D printed prosthetic sockets far superior, comfort-wise, to regular prosthetic sockets. 3D printers are becoming compatible with many new materials, like lightweight titanium, increasing durability and strength. Prosthetics will also become more comfortable by using multi-material 3D printing methods to create more natural sockets that better interface with the human body.
Jose Delgado Jr
Born with his left hand missing, 53-year-old Jose Delgado Jr. has a lifetime’s experience of many different prosthetic devices. For the past year, he has had the use of a myoelectric prosthetic device that cost US$42,000. Jose was fortunate in that his insurance company picked up the cost of this hugely expensive device as many physically unique individuals are not so lucky.
This myoelectric prosthetic device works by taking the signals produced by the muscle fibres within his forearm, and translating those same signals to move the fingers of the prosthetic hand mechanically. The prosthetic hand is actually a very good replica of a real hand.
Jose agreed to test the 3D printed Cyborg Beast prosthetic hand that was printed out by Jeremy Simon of 3DUniverse.org. When Simon met up with Jose, Simon was unsure how the 3D printed prosthetic hand, costing just US$50, would compare with Jose’s Cyborg Beast hand that cost US$42,000. After all, Jose’s job involved a good amount of lifting and other manual activities, so any prosthetic hand had to be up to such demanding tasks on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Simon fitted Jose with the 3D hand.
After some time had passed, Simon decided to meet up with Delgado again, this time to work on the setup of the tendons within the Beast. To his amazement, Delgado had told him that the 3D printed hand has been functioning better than the myoelectric device, and he had preferred it to the $42,000 hand he had used for over a year. A piece may break every once in a while, as ABS plastic is not the strongest material, but one can print a replacement or use a stronger material at a cheaper price. Simon has since printed a newer, stronger hand for Jose, using Bridge nylon, which is stronger than ABS plastic.
Hayley Fraser Hayley, aged five, was born without fingers on her left hand. The condition, known as symbrachydactyly, left just a stump at the end of her arm. Hayley was so self-conscious about the stump, and she often attempted to hide it whenever photographs were taken of her, and at nursery school.
When Hayley, from Inverness in Scotland, was three, doctors in Edinburgh suggested transplanting a toe to her left hand, which they would turn into a finger. However, her parents searched for other options. Through an Internet search, they learned about E-Nable. Hayley was matched with a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Frankie Flood.
A plaster cast of Hayley’s arm was sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Professor Flood. He made the 3D printed prosthetic parts and created Hayley’s extraordinary pink and purple arm. The whole process took just six weeks.
Hayley is now the proud owner of a pink, 3D printed prosthetic arm. E-Nable made the arm for Hayley, after the British National Health Service turned down her parents’ request for a prosthetic. The team of volunteers took inspiration from the Iron Man super-hero in their creation of Hayley’s arm. Hayley’s hand is controlled by her wrist: Her fingers close with the downward movement of her hand, and her fingers open with an upward movement of her hand.
The future of 3D printed prosthetics lies in lowering costs and improving the aesthetics. The development of predictive movement for prosthetics to make it so people won’t have to think hard about controlling the device. Because prosthetics are such personal items, each one has to be custom-made or fit to the needs of the wearer. However, as 3D printers become more affordable, with some available for less than US$200, the possibility of anyone being able to design and print a prosthetic limb in their home or local community is rapidly becoming a reality.
With 3D printing, a prosthetic can be created based on the patient’s needs, such as an extendable arm that allows him or her to reach down effortlessly to pick up items off the floor.
In the near future, prosthetics will be seamlessly integrated into people’s everyday lives with minimal effort. New 3D scanning and body modeling technologies from companies such as Body Labs enable people to 3D scan their limbs and have prosthetics modelled after them, making for more natural fitting and appearance. Soon, prosthetics will move with more fluidity to mimic natural movement, and people will be able to control them in part with their brains and bodies through direct natural touch input systems.
To find out more or donate to E-Nabling, go to enablingthefuture.org