3D Printed Prosthetics And Its Impact In The Medical World

The loss of a limb could happen to almost anyone, considering the number of hazards and accidents that occur frequently.

Medical science has developed the attachment of replacement limbs to restore some form and function to the body’s affected area.

One of such solutions has been the use of traditional prosthetics, which could prove quite expensive for some amputees. Some go for thousands of dollars. However, there is a cost-effective solution involving a 3d printer along with other existing technologies.

3d printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process in which objects are created in all three dimensions by carefully depositing the selected materials on each layer in line with the 3d model of the object in question.

Improvements in research and development have resulted in a low-cost alternative for prosthesis, which appears to fit better and seems more life-like, with customizable options.

The result being 3d prosthetics, which utilizes Computer-Aided Design, 3d printing, and advanced imaging technology that help print artificial limbs which surpass conventional 2D options

Offering better design via a 3d scanner and a 3d printing device ensures that the prospective amputee gets a better aesthetic looking limb manufactured using industry-grade materials such as carbon fiber, plastics, and lightweight metals.

3d printed prosthetics seem to be the future in the field of prosthesis for both adults and children alike. This innovation could not have come at a better time where organ transplants could go as high as half a million dollars. Before we go deep into how prosthetics have impacted the medical world, let’s quickly see how it all started.

The History Of Prosthetics

Prosthetics date back to ancient times and have evolved to what they are today. The earliest known example is a prosthetic toe discovered in Ancient Egypt between 950-710 B.C.E. Ancient Roman General Marcus Sergius had a prosthetic right hand made from iron to help hold his shield while fighting.

Advances such as hinges on prosthetic hands and locking knee joints on legs were pioneered by Ambrose Pare, a French military surgeon in the early 16th century. Materials commonly used in this era included wood, metal, and plastic instead of carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium, which we often see today.

The history and development of 3d prosthetics can be traced back to prop and gadget Ivan Owen. Owen had crafted a mechanical arm for an upcoming science convention, after which he posted videos online. A South African carpenter who had lost four fingers saw the video and sought to work with Owen on creating a replacement arm for himself.

Liam’s mother came across the project and decided she would want a version of the prosthetic hand for her son. This meant a cheaper solution, rather than resorting to the traditional prosthesis with significantly higher costs.

Upon the success of both limb replacements, Owen decided to upload the files and other materials he used to design Liam’s prosthetic arm to e-NABLE. e-NABLE is an open-source online community where engineers and visual design artists can upload new designs and collaborate on prostheses’ improvements.

Most prosthetics available to children are suited to toddlers who are more than a year old.

How 3D Printed Prosthetics Have Impacted The Medical World

3d printed prosthetics have greatly impacted the field of medicine.

Using 3d printing, one can leverage technology, advances in manufacturing processes, and different materials of choice to craft the perfect replacement for lost arms or legs.

There are athletes today who remain active in Paralympics due to prosthetic hands or legs.

Apart from cost reduction, prosthetics made using 3d printing device, and 3d printers enable patients to get replacement arms and legs that fit better with their anatomy. Aside from its use in the manufacturing of 3d prosthetics, additive manufacturing also finds use in other medical areas. These include:

Printing of tissues and organs

To 3d print tissues and organs, a 3d printer (bioprinter in this case) makes use of a computer-aided pipette to fix cells according to preset layers and create a synthetic living tissue and organs. The synthetic products can be studied in the laboratory, as they mimic real organs on a less-realistic scale. Medical students will no longer have to worry about cadavers and all the problems associated with preserving live organs.

Preparation for surgeries via the use of models recreated with 3D printing

It is now possible for surgeons to conduct trial surgeries for practice before operation on a human patient using 3d simulated models of the patient. This creates a way for surgeons to work even faster with better planning and more precision in the event of live surgery. This practice is gaining ground fast and will most likely be a routine procedure in the future.

3D printing of surgical equipment

3d printing devices can be used to make surgical equipment of varying sizes. Forceps, scalpels, and surgical knives made using this method still retain sterility with significantly lower production costs.

Types Of 3D Printed Prosthetics

Additive manufacturing technology can be used to craft different prosthetic limbs of any kind, in line with the amputee’s need.

Different prosthesis exists for the ears, eyes, pancreas, and even heart muscles. Medical science has gotten to an era where 3d printing might make organ transplants almost irrelevant.

Below are some examples of 3d printed prosthetics:

Prosthetic Hands/Arms

Getting a 3d printed prosthetic hand that fits well with the human anatomy is now easy. Artificial arms have been improved upon to hold more weight while offering multi-grip functionalities for the user. However, it is important to note that the average prosthetic hand is not waterproof.

With constant improvements being made by engineers, doctors, and design artists, people would have 3d printed prosthetic hands that are waterproof and more intuitive than those in existence today. The Phoenix Hand Model on e-NABLE, and the Iron Man arm by Limbless Solutions is an excellent example of just how much improvement can be made on prosthesis.

3D Printed Prosthetic Leg

Prosthesis for the legs is commonplace today, with different legs being created for even a single user upon their demand. Prosthetic legs have been created to help withstand the stress and rigor of recreational activity without causing discomfort to the user.

South African Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is a good example that demonstrates the efficiency of prostheses in sports. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities for athletes who have lost a limb and want to partake in competitive sports to do so, thanks in part to a prosthesis.

3D printed fingers

Owing to the level of precision which 3d printing exhibits, it would be possible to print parts as small as fingers. Nick Brookins has designed a product for this purpose known as the KnickFinger. The options for single or double knuckle customization are available, with various video tutorials, materials used in construction, and other helpful information accessible at the click of a button.

The Cost of 3D Prosthetic

Prostheses made using 3d printers have the advantage of being more affordable to people who are open to limb replacement for the hand, legs, and other body parts that can be replaced via prostheses.

Some can be on the high side, as there are differences in in-built functionalities and choice customizations by the people who can afford it.

Also, keep in mind that most people who depend on one or more artificial limbs for mobility will have to replace them every three to six years, depending on the durability of the material used in building it. Hence, it is not a one-off cost.

Cost of 3D Printed Prosthetic Arm

Although 3d printing has significantly lowered the costs, some could be expensive as well. The cheap ones are between 50 – 1000 dollars, while those on the high side can cost as much as 20,000 to 100,000 dollars.

Earlier limb replacements could go for as much as 42,000 dollars, as was the case with Jose Delgado, who was left without a large portion of his left arm at the point of birth. He currently uses a 50 dollars arm, which he admits is more comfortable than the previous one. His fake limb is made out of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic.

Cost of 3d Printed Prosthetic Legs

Those who need a prosthetic leg should prepare between 5000 dollars to 50,000 dollars for treatment. 3d printed legs, on the other hand, can be gotten for as low as 50 dollars. The most expensive and sophisticated prosthetic leg on the market is the Genium X3, which looks to let soldiers who have lost lower limbs return to active service; it costs 120,000 dollars.

Cost of Prosthetic Feet

A prosthetic foot will cost significantly lower than the 5,000 to 50,000 dollars range today if the prosthetic foot developed by scientists at MIT is mass-produced. The researchers claim that the feet can support the body while giving a natural gait that is human-like.

Cost of Prosthetic Fingers

A non-3d-printed prosthetic finger could go for as high as 40,000 dollars in some parts of the world. A handyman named Howard Kamarata was able to get a prosthetic finger for less than 100 dollars from Howard Barrett, an industrial designer.

Artificial fingers could potentially cost less in the nearest future due to optimization in production processes and other factors.

The Next Revolution Of 3D Printed Prosthetic

3d printed prosthetics has vast room for improvements and potential future uses, which could see use in the following areas:

Printing of bones – The number of people who will need surgery to reconstruct bone-tissue links will soon have access to printed bones, which work better than bone implants. These implants will be manufactured from biomaterials and will be reduced over time and remodel to form living bone.

Greater responsiveness – Advances in machine learning will help to amplify the responsiveness of the transmitted signals being sent to the implanted electrodes.


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