3D Printing is Changing Lives with Personally-Printed Prosthetics

In a previous article, I discussed how 3D printing enables doctors to print patient-specific anatomical models derived from actual patient imaging. Doctors no longer need to rely solely on 2-dimensional MRI or CT scans to prepare for surgery. Rather, using medical imaging data and a 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model, an exact 3D printed model of a patient’s face or hand (for example) can be created – permitting the surgeon to fine-tune a procedure before performing the surgery.

3-D printing is similarly revolutionizing the field of rehabilitative medicine, and tackling a problem of particular difficulty in the developing world: prosthetics.

According to NGO LIMBS, only 5% of the nearly 40 million amputees in the developing world have access to prosthetic devices or assistance. The World Health Organization places this number slightly higher – 10% – but the situation for amputees in the developing clearly remains dire.

Many companies (notably among them Xponential Works portfolio company Unyq) are leveraging the advantages of generative design and additive manufacturing to create a radical new approach to prosthetics both in terms of form and functionality. Still other companies and organizations are focused on bringing these advantages to the world’s most needy amputees in environments that lack the medical infrastructure or resources to support the labor-intensive and expensive prospect of traditional prosthetic manufacturing.

How expensive are traditional prosthetics? One source puts the cost of a traditionally manufactured simple prosthetic arm at $1000 for materials alone. An equivalent arm produced by 3D printing can lower this cost to as little as $4.

Using a handheld 3D scanner and remote 3D printing, for example, a not-for-profit organization called LifeNabled is creating low-cost 3D printed prosthetics in areas where amputees previously had little hope of receiving a prosthesis.

How Does this Work?

I’ve long made the argument that 3D printing can easily eliminate a huge portion of the shipping industry (along with its massive carbon footprint). Even as politicians fight 20th century-style trade wars with questionable efficacy and unforeseen consequences, additive manufacturing is silently erasing geographic borders for businesses.

The work done by LifeNabled and other similar ventures is proof of concept that 3D printing can show similar results outside the business sector, too.

On the ground in a developing region or even a war zone, a LifeNabled-trained technician makes a cast of the patient’s stump and takes basic limb measurements. This cast is scanned using simple, low-cost scanner and the resulting file sent to a remote professional prosthetist for review and approval. The file is then forwarded to the 3D printer nearest to the patient’s location, the prosthesis printed and delivered locally to the patient.

The Bottom Line

3D printing of prosthetics can bring hope of a more mobile life to millions of amputees worldwide. The process itself lowers risk to medical and aid personnel in conflict zones, and slashes expenses in budget-strapped developing regions. By increasing efficiency and safety, and drastically lowering cost, additive manufacturing can make the dream of universal access to prosthetics a reality.

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