Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has had a revolutionary impact on many fields including medicine, where it has been used to make items including artificial skin, dental implants, artificial joints, prosthetic limbs, and more. The last has proven particularly exciting.

3D printing involves using a digital file to make a three-dimensional object. The file includes a 3D model and instructions on how to make the object. The 3D printer will deposit the “build material” in layers along with a binder to hold the layers together. This technique is called additive processing or manufacturing since it gradually adds material to the object. It is the opposite of subtractive processes like carving or milling in which raw material is subtracted from an item during its construction. Plastic and acrylic are among the more commonly used materials in 3D printing.

Enabling the Future

The American artist Ivan Owen may have been one of the first to discover the possible applications of 3D printing to making inexpensive prosthetics. He had previously used it to make gadgets for puppet shows and various films. In 2011, he made a simple artificial hand for a hobbyist convention and posted a video about it on Youtube. Among the viewers were a carpenter who had an accident that required prosthesis. He and Owen began discussing ways to make a workable prosthetic hand, and their discussions drew the attention of the mother of a young boy who also needed a similar prosthetic. The child, Liam, was five years old, which meant he would outgrow a conventional prosthetic in short order.

Owen thus decided to use 3D printing to make the hand, for he would then be able to rescale and reprint the hand as Liam grew. That meant he could make replacement hands with relatively little difficulty and decreased costs. He then approached a printer manufacturer and persuaded them to donate two printers.

Owen also decided not to patent his design. Instead, he posted the files on the internet so anybody could use them, study them, make improvements or collaborate with someone else on similar designs. That decision led to the development of a network called Enabling the Future that has 7,000 members in several dozen countries. They have access to 2,000 printers that they use to make prosthetics for people, most of them children. The volunteers in the organization can print a variety of prosthetics and they list possible designs.

Considering the applicability of 3D printed prosthetics for children, they come in bright colors and have a superhero-like look. A few of the prostheses are “task specific” and are designed for very specialized purposes like playing a trumpet. 


How has 3D printing affected prosthetics?

3d printed prosthetic hand.jpg

3D printing has helped make prosthetics more readily available. A traditional prosthetic limb can cost anywhere from $5000 to $50,000. Prosthetics also have to be custom-made, and the process of making one can take weeks or months. In the meantime, the patient has to periodically meet with specialists to ensure the prosthesis will fit and work properly.

A 3D-printed prothesis is proving to be very affordable. These types of prosthetics are typically made of a sturdy and lightweight plastic, that is purposefully designed to be more manageable. 

Speed is also a major advantage for 3D-printed prosthetics. The specialist can make a digital image of the patient’s limb within half an hour and then have the printed and assembled within two days. The prosthetist can thus help more people in less time. 

Several developing countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Cambodia have embarked on pilot projects to see how well 3D printing will work for them. So far, the results have been promising. The first patient in Uganda was a little girl. A prosthetic replacement enabled her to walk and run for the first time in her life.