How 3D Printed Prosthetics Will Change The Lives of 30 Million People

There are an estimated 30 million people worldwide who need need a prosthetic. Of those, less than 20% actually have one. Even in the USA, the richest and most powerful country in the world, many don’t have replacement limbs due to the prohibitive costs. Despite this, around 200,000 amputations are performed in the USA per year, leaving many with stumps who struggle to live as they used to.

These difficulties are seen most widely in poorer countries, where those who are born or who acquire a disability struggle to find adequate care. There is a shortage of 40,000 trained prosthetists in poorer countries, and even for amputees who have access to a prosthetist, there are issues such as time and money. They may need to traverse the long distance to the technician, and once they get there it can be a week-long procedure to assess the patient’s needs, product a limb, and fit it. Most cannot be away from their peers or children that long. Some cannot be gone for a day without losing their livelihoods and source of food.

There is therefore a problem. Traditional prosthetic technologies are leaving a gaping wide gap in those who need a prosthetic, and those who have one. They fit great when completed, but are expensive, have long lead times, and need to be replaced.

Traditional Prosthetics: The Problem

Modern prosthetics have been a godsend for millions of people since their inception, this article is by no means an attack on an incredible treatment for those in need. It would however be naive to dismiss any concerns about their perfection.

Modern prosthetics involve inserting the limb, such as an arm, into a silicone sleeve and using straps to hold it in place. The traditional process of creating a custom fitting prosthetic involves wrapping the stump in plaster to make a reverse mold, before letting it dry. Then, fill this reverse mold with more plaster, and leave it to harden. A socket can then be made from this that fits, after additional modifications for precision, to the bone on the stump. It’s not a simple process by any means; care is required to avoid tender areas or nerves, and the process can take over a week due to the three days of physical therapy also involved in the fitting.

3d printed prosthetics
Though traditionally made prosthetics are improving, they lack in certain areas.

To add to this, there’s the cost. These are one-off, custom made pieces made from polypropylene, acrylics, and polyurethane, as well as a pylon made of either aluminium of carbon fiber. These are not cheap, and the fact they are made as a one-off rather than mass-produced only rocks the boat further. The cost of a traditional prosthetic is estimated to cost between $1,800 and $8,000, and they must also be replaced every five years, with children requiring replacements within two.

There are three key points here. One is time, one is cost, and one is accessibility. Prosthetics struggle in all three areas. So is there an alternative?

3D Printed Prosthetics: The Solution?

Rather than spend a week with a technician to perfectly tailor a prosthetic, a 3D scanner can do all this work under 15 minutes, and the resulting scan sent across the world, to be 3D printed or analyzed, in seconds. What’s more, there are 3D printed prosthetics that can be made in a variety of colors such as to match the patient’s skin tone, and for less than $30. Once the 3D design of the prosthetic has been tailored, you can keep the files forever. This means that if you fit a five-year-old with a 3D printed arm prosthetic, and he grows out of it, you can revisit the file and scale it up for them. 3D printed prosthetics literally grow with you. This makes 3D printed prosthetics for children a perfect solution.

3d printed prosthetics for children
3D printed prosthetics for children offer a fantastic way to keep disabled children active as they grow.

So there must be a catch, right?

Unfortunately, there is. But we’ll get on to that.

In Jordan, the increasingly unstable climate in Syria and the Middle East has led to a rising number of refugees coming into the country, many with amputated limbs. The amount of people in this situation means the time that it would take to fit all these people with prosthetics is unfathomable, and therefore drastic measures had to take place.

One particular hospital in Jordan began trialing 3D printing in prosthetics to treat these refugees, many of whom carry serious mental issues and trauma as well as their physical injuries. Rather than spending a whole week creating the prosthesis, these 3D printed prosthetics can be created from scratch in 24 hours, seven times more efficient than traditional techniques. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) are therefore trialing 3D printing with a view of applying it worldwide if the results come back positive.

3d printed prosthetics prosthetic
A patient in Syria having his 3D printed prosthetic fitted.

Forgetting the speed advantages, there are a number of other reasons why 3D printed prosthetics may be the future of the industry. When a person loses a limb, the problems span beyond the loss in ability from that limb’s use in everyday functions; there are also issues in balance, center of gravity, and ergonomics that come from a sizable weight no longer being present. 3D printed prosthetics can be made to weigh the same as the child or adult’s other arm or leg, leading to improved posture and balance, whilst also helping the spine.

3D printing has already seen use in areas such as knee replacements, as well as jaw surgeries via 3D printed surgical guides. There is no reason why its usefulness should stop there, and prosthetics seem the ideal area for 3D printing to help improve peoples’ standards of living. What’s more, if 3D bioprinting and 3D printed organs are possible, leading to 3D printed hearts in the future, then creating workable limbs seems simple in comparison.

The low barriers to entry and costs of creating 3D printed prosthetics for those in need led a number of makers and tinkerers together via the common goal of doing good. If you need a reason to re-believe in humanity, this is it.

Enabling The Future

Enabling The Future was born accidentally, and out of bizarre circumstances. Back in 2011, Ivan Owen made a functional metal hand (which looks amazing, by the way) for a steampunk convention, of which a video was found by Richard, a carpenter across the world in South Africa.

Richard had lost his fingers in an unfortunate woodworking accident, and got in touch with Ivan about creating bionic fingers for him in the same vein as his steampunk costume. Communicating over Skype and email, they worked to create this ambitious model to restore some of Richard’s livelihood. This then led to another encounter with Liam, a five-year-old boy also from South Africa who was too missing his fingers on his right hand.

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