Once every few decades or so, a new technology comes along that is truly revolutionary. 3D printing is one such technology. With the potential to change a number of modern industries, 3D printing can truly change the world. One area where it has already begun to do so is in the medical field of prosthetics.
Thanks to 3D printers, engineers and doctors are now partnering to create artificial limbs more quickly and cheaply than ever before. This is allowing people from all over the world greater access to replacement limbs. Not only that, but these new prosthetics are custom-built to individual specifications, making them more comfortable from the very beginning.
3D printing works by spraying melted thin plastic filament through a nozzle. This filament is built up
layer by layer using computer-generated renderings of an existing object. This allows the printer to create almost anything – including limbs. Because the limbs are customized for a single person, they are far less expensive than an artificial limb that has been mass produced and then sized.
This is particularly helpful in the area of child prosthetics. Because children grow so quickly, they need new prosthetics fairly often. This can be extremely expensive, and in many cases results in a child having to make due with an ill-fitting prosthetic. In some cases, they may even go without. A traditional prosthetic can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. In contrast, a 3D printed prosthetic can be produced for a few hundred dollars at most, and in some cases quite a bit less.
Another amazing example of how 3D printing is revolutionizing the prosthetics industry can be found in the
Sudan. Robohand is a 3D printed alternative to traditional prosthetic devices. These prostheses are custom fitted, anatomically driven, functional devices. For the first time, patients with a prosthetic hand will have the ability to open and close all of their fingers. Their Roboarm device provides this gross grasp capability with both palm up and palm down capabilities, and their Robofinger allows for improved fine motor skills.
To do this, existing joint motion mechanically moves the custom-made prosthetic. This allows for a more natural movement and feel. Even more incredibly, these devices do not require surgery, motors, or battery packs. This greatly reduces their cost as well as maintenance requirements. They are designed to be comfortable, affordable, and incredibly durable.
Prosthetics cover far more than missing limbs, however. 3D printing is also a godsend for people who are missing facial parts such as ears. This technology allows a patient’s remaining ear to be scanned and then flipped to a mirror image, which is then printed. 3D printing is also being used to create devices such as cranial implants. It is expected that very soon, 3D printed hip and knee implants will become common.
One of the biggest advantages to 3D printed prosthetics and implants is how quickly they can be made. Instead of taking weeks to be manufactured and customized, a 3D printed prosthetic device can be created and shipped out to the hospital within a day. Not only that, but because these devices can be customized to the individual’s needs, they are far more comfortable. Studies have shown that nearly a quarter of the people who have a prosthetic device currently do not wear them because they’re uncomfortable. 3D printing can greatly reduce that number by providing patients with devices that are more comfortable from the very beginning.
3D printing technology is continuing to improve, and is becoming more and more accessible. Only a few years ago, these devices were only available to schools or large corporations. Now, anyone can pick one up online for around the same cost as an average computer. It may be possible that some day, patients will be able to print their own prosthetics at home after downloading an existing model. When combined with 3D scanning technology, you could create almost anything.