How 3D Printers Help Provide Affordable Prosthetics to Ukrainians Maimed in War

Printable limbs may be the future

  • The use of 3D printers is allowing victims of the war in Ukraine to get prosthetic limbs faster. 
  • The process can drop the cost of a prosthetic to under $10,000 per limb.
  • The company estimates that more than 10,000 prosthetic limbs are needed in Ukraine.
An engineer wrapping a robotic arm.

Sunwoo Jung / Getty Images

Thousands of Ukrainians have lost limbs during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and 3D printers are helping supply prosthetics.

Unlimited Tomorrow, a maker of prosthetic arms, is donating hundreds of replacement limbs to the war-torn country. The victims will get access to their prosthetic limbs through 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and 3D printing. This process shortens the timing and reduces the price of a high-tech prosthetic arm from $20,000-$100,000 to under $10,000 per limb.

"3D printing enables TrueLimb to be uniquely personalized to each user from the shape, size, and skin tone to match the opposing limb perfectly," Easton LaChapelle, the CEO and founder of Unlimited Tomorrow, told Lifewire in an email interview. "3D printing also allows us to decrease costs and remain nimble from a design perspective. We are not bound by expensive molds or traditional manufacturing techniques."

Lighter Limbs

Using 3D printers, which make a 3d object from a computer model, lets Unlimited Tomorrow make a robust but lightweight product, LaChappelle said. Weight is one of the biggest challenges in upper limb prosthetics, and the company achieved a weight of 1-1.5 pounds. 3D printing also allows Unlimited Tomorrow to make its limbs anywhere in the world. The company estimates that more than 10,000 prosthetic limbs are needed in Ukraine due to war injuries. 

"While initial prosthetics will be shipped to Ukraine from the US, we can foresee a scenario in the not-too-distant future where color 3D printers are on the ground in Ukraine," LaChappelle said. "Making it that much faster and economical to get victims the help they so urgently need." 

Unlimited Tomorrow uses 3D scanning technology, design software, and additive manufacturing, which is the printing process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time. The key to a personalized fit is perfecting the prosthesis's socket to a person's residual limb. 

After an initial 3D scan of the limb, the socket model is created, and after 3D printing, test sockets are shipped to hospitals in Ukraine. Virtual consultation is used to select the best-fitting socket, after which the final TrueLimb prosthesis is additively manufactured and delivered to the hospitals. Unlimited Tomorrow then provides training resources for the bionic limb.

The same 3D-printing technology used by Unlimited Technology is used by many other companies as well and is helping to revolutionize the process of making prosthetic arms around the world. 3D printing allows for organic designs tailored to individuals' anatomy and produced locally or regionally. With traditional manufacturing, the ability to customize through production methods like casting, modeling, and milling is not possible, Patrick Boyd, the marketing director of EOS, a 3D printing company, told Lifewire via email. Typically, sizes for prosthetics are Small, Medium, or Large. 

"But by scanning the individual and leveraging medical know-how, what is produced are prosthetics that are optimized to the wearer, providing increased comfort and mobility," he added. 

A child with a prosthetic limb playing blocks with an adult.

FatCamera / Getty Images

The Power of 3D 

Prosthetic and medical device manufacturers, as well as point-of-care facilities, are using 3D printing to deliver 3D printed limbs. Companies such as ​​Partial Hand Solutions use Formlabs 3D printers like the Fuse 1 to provide functional solutions for soldiers and civilians with partial hand and finger amputations, as well as for children with more extensive prosthetic requirements, Gaurav Manchanda, the medical market development director for the 3D printing company Formlabs told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Prior to using 3D printing, most prosthetic fingers were made using injection molding, Manchanda said. "The parts had to be outsourced, taking two weeks to arrive, and only five sizes were available," he added. 

The 3D-printed limbs also allow more customization options. There is a trend among amputees to move away from the "bionic arm" paradigm and toward "low-tech," mechanical-only prostheses that are designed for functionality, Alkaios Bournias Varotsis, a product marketing manager at nTopology, a company that makes software used in prosthetic design, said via email. "The customization options that are unlocked by 3D printing will have an impact on the functionality of these devices."

In the future, getting a 3D-printed limb could take hours rather than weeks or months. Some healthcare organizations have on-site 3D printing capabilities that allow for a patient measurement and design that are done in one day and delivery of the prosthetic to the doctor within a few weeks for patient fitting, Boyd said. 

"That time for print-to-patient will compress even more in the next few years," he added.

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