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3D Printing and the Future of Prosthetics
 |  Christine Evans

3D Printing and the Future of Prosthetics

According to the Amputee Coalition, there are currently around 2 million people in the United States living with limb loss. That number is expected to double by 2050. If things continue the way they are, an expected 185,000 people will experience limb loss each year, or 300-500 people every day.

The meteoric rise in people needing prosthetics practically demands an alternative solution to current prosthetic industry practices, and 3D printing just might be the answer.

Dramatic Cost Reduction

3d printed prosthetic

One of the issues with the prosthetic industry is the incredible cost it takes to obtain one. A prosthetic limb can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 to start. Some limbs cost tens of thousands of dollars. Those with extra gadgets and specialty parts start around $50,000 and can go higher. 

When you couple these numbers with the fact that insurance does not cover many prosthetics and the average prosthetic wear out in five years or less, the lifetime expense for those requiring prosthetics is astronomical. This is especially true for families of children who require prosthetic limbs as they grow up.

In comparison to standard prosthetics, some companies that offer CNC machining services have also started 3D printing prosthetics. E-enable is a good example of a company that is not only reducing the price tag of prosthetics to as little as $50 per prosthetic, but they’ve even made their designs open-source.

E-nable was first started by two men who lived thousands of miles apart but came together for one purpose - to create a prosthetic hand. They began with a single 3D printed prototype for a five-year-old boy. After getting the design down, they uploaded their designs to an open-source website and created a world-wide network of 3D printer owners who could fulfill orders for hands in their own home or workshop. Now prosthetic hands are provided to people in need around the country and the world through E-nable free of charge.

This phenomenal technology has the potential to change the world for children and adults around the world. As 3D printers become more high tech and integrate with body scanners for imaging and modeling, artificial intelligence and deep learning will create even better prosthetics. One thing is for certain: affordable prosthetics will continue to come from 3D printer workshops, and they’ll just get better with time.

Accessibility

3d printed prosthetic

One of the biggest reasons many cannot access prosthetics is due to the cost. Since cost is a significant prohibition, men, women, and children go without much-needed arms, legs, hands, and feet. Distance may also be prohibitive in accessing necessary consultations and care for prosthetics.

Every prosthetic should be molded, shaped, and customized to the individual who will be wearing it. These will never be a “one-size-fits-all” solution and, due to this factor, those who would seek prosthetics must find a knowledgeable medical team who can craft the prosthetic. They’ll also need to be present for fittings, checkups, and available for necessary adjustments as they grow or their needs change. This is not practical for many people, thus making prosthetics inaccessible for many.

Thanks to the availability of 3D printers and their relatively inexpensive cost, the growing reality is that facilities can print prosthetics in cities everywhere, and patients might even be able to print their own prostheses someday. Though we’re still far from the day when custom 3D files will be sent to a patient’s 3D printer so they can print in their own home, it’s still a possibility.

What is happening currently is that there are pop-up facilities working with doctors who see the incredible benefit of making prosthetics accessible for every community. When it comes down to it, as long as there is a 3D printer located in a community, that community can have access to 3D printed prosthetics.

Designs and Features

With 3D printing technology and the availability of easy to use 3D modeling software like SelfCAD, the potential for unique designs and extra features are within reach of many who need extra prosthetics for active lifestyles. If affording one prosthetic was cost-prohibitive, many children and adults find it impossible to purchase a second for activities like biking, hiking, running, and swimming. The inability to purchase a prosthetic that allows for these activities is incredibly life-limiting for many who experience limb loss.

Thanks to 3D printing, with the dramatic price reduction, comes an ability to commission more than one prosthesis for individual needs. Now, children can have a 3D printed hand for regular tasks like going to school and throwing a ball, and another specifically for riding their bike or going for a swim. Broadening the possibilities for varied designs and high-tech features that would otherwise cause a regular prosthetic to skyrocket into the tens of thousands of dollars is where the future of 3D printed prosthetics is heading.

Expanding potential designs and features is critical both for children as they grow and gain confidence in the world around them, as well as older children who want to pursue sports and accomplish many of the same tasks as their friends as they grow through junior high and high school. Instead of finding themselves limited by availability or cost, the 3D printer is set to expand the world of those with limb loss, no matter their age, regardless of their location.

Opportunities for Greater Applications

With traditional prosthetics, companies could only make parts that worked with material such as metal and extra-durable plastic. Though silicone and softer materials formed parts of the prosthesis, the main limb would be made from the harder, more durable materials. As such, working prosthetics tended to be limited in form, function, and appearance. Beyond this, the only available options were cosmetic prosthetics - those that only improved a person’s appearance but did not contribute to their ability levels. Cosmetic prosthetics include hands, face, breasts, feet, and toes. Cosmetic prosthetics, however, don’t do much other than help improve the appearance and, as such, are often not covered by insurance. They can also be incredibly costly and still lack the fine, minute detail that is needed for a prosthetic to actually look like it is part of a person’s body. This is again where 3D printing comes into play.

Huge strides are being made in the area of cosmetic prosthetics that contribute to a person’s physical appearance in addition to having multiple useful applications. If you can envision a life-like hand made of inner hardened plastic or titanium “bones,” encased in life-like silicone “flesh” made to match the person’s skin tone that moved and responded to their needs just like a regular hand, you’d come close to what 3D printing is poised to accomplish.

Take it a step further, and you have 3D printed skulls used for reconstructive surgery, such as one man who had a tennis-ball-sized tumor removed from his face, leaving him lacking the entire left side of his face. He couldn’t eat normally, drink normally, or live normally. Enter the 3D printer, inventive doctors, and a few blueprint scans, and you come up with a facial prosthetic that looks incredibly lifelike, matched perfectly to the man’s face. He can now eat normally, drink normally, and carry on a normal life, all thanks to the magic of 3D printing.

As this technology catches on and is used more widely, it is expected that the price for advanced prosthetics such as these will decrease considerably. As the technology becomes more widespread and prices fall, custom advanced prosthetics will become more widely available and accessible to those who need them most.

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About the author

Christine Evans is the Director of Product Marketing & Content Strategy at Fictiv, an on-demand manufacturing company. Over the past six years, Christine has grown Fictiv’s popular Hardware Guide and Digital Manufacturing Resource Center, with over 2,000 teardowns, DFM guides, and mechanical design articles to help democratize access to manufacturing and hardware design knowledge.