Prosthetics from 3D Printing

Prosthetics is one field being radically improved by 3D Printing.

Courtesy of Melissa Ng.

Last year, while traveling around the USA for the 3DRV national roadtrip, we met a number of young companies making a difference for people who have lost a limb. Prosthetics are typically very expensive, but the world of 3D printing is changing it, and fast.

Depending on where you get your statistics, there are between 10 and 15 million amputees in the world. Often, people who lose a limb go through a lot of pain and challenge to get a prosthetic limb that allows them to fully function again. Bottom line, there is a big, big need in this area of medicine and health.

Without crowdfunding, you might be able to 3D print a simple prosthetic with the help of some open source advocates. As I meet with 3D printing inventors and entrepreneurs everywhere, I'm not surprised by the ingenuity and caring that people have for those who have suffered in an accident or illness. I am amazed by the people who are trying to build a business to help the many in the world who cannot afford or who cannot get access to the technology (crowd-funding) to make it possible.

The news is filled with stories about generous acts, but one I found a group that is trying to spread the word even further. This organization, called e-NABLE, is doing some impressive work by creating a collaborative approach to get leaders in medicine, industry, and public policy to create an event that will not only educate professionals, but include donated prosthetics to children with upper limb disabilities. 

This team of volunteers has created a prosthetic hand for about $50 with 3D printed parts and largely available screws and connectors.  They are working to create open source hand design files to print, as well as heart-warming stories of the childrenadults and military veterans who have been gifted these 3D printed hands from a global network of e-NABLE volunteers. 

The e-NABLE team recently visited a leading trauma surgeon, Dr. Albert Chi, to show the surgeon their $50 3D printed plastic hand. Dr. Chi saw the potential for this hand and likely many other types of prosthetics, to change the lives of thousands of people worldwide, who could never afford a commercially made $30,000-$50,000 prosthetic.

One of the companies making prosthetics that is also part of e-NABLE mentioned above: Limbitless Solutions  is a nonprofit company creating functional arms for children (and others) that need them.  If you are studying this space or care about it, they are a team to watch and visit.

While at Shapeways for a community meetup, I met a local New York artist who donated her time to help a woman, Natasha Long of Nova Scotia, who was in an accident and lost her leg. The woman had an amazing attitude and viewed the loss of her leg as an "opportunity for art in prosthetics." The 3D artist, Melissa Ng who owns Lumecluster, heard about the need and donated one of her elegant, artistic 3D printed mask designs to be used in the prosthetic for Natasha. The team at Thinking Robot Studios created the prosthetic leg – you can read the post at Melissa’s blog.  

While prosthetic needs of the world cannot all get solved via open source designs or 3D printing, there are a lot more people with hope when they see these sorts of projects and the news that teams are forming to help address the cost and customization of prosthetic legs, arms, and hands.