3D Printing in Prosthetics: History, Benefits, and Materials
Learn how the use of 3D printing is changing the field of prosthetics.
Prosthetics 3D printing is the use of 3D printers to design and create artificial, wearable body parts such as legs, hands, and arms. It is a relatively new method compared to the traditional method of production. The materials used in creating 3D printed prosthetics are accessible and lightweight, making the process suitable for producing prosthetics and providing a favorable alternative for patients worldwide.
This article will further discuss 3D printing in prosthetics, how it is used, its history, cost, and benefits.
Prosthetics 3D printing is the use of additive manufacturing technologies rather than traditional subtractive manufacturing methods to create artificial body parts. These body parts may have been lost through traumatic events or congenital disorders (present at birth). In some cases, amputation surgery may be necessary when a victim's limb or limbs are affected severely by a disease that leads to its atrophy and decomposition (gangrene). In any case, 3D-printed prosthetics serve as a replacement for the missing limbs.
For more information, see our guide on 3D printing.
3D printing has proven useful in creating prosthetics for a number of reasons. Using 3D printing to fabricate prosthetics leads to a considerable reduction in the manufacturing time, cost, and weight of prosthetics. Prosthetics produced by traditional methods require stringent procedures and are expensive. A prosthetic arm is usually more than $2,000, and the amputee may need to wait for long periods (between 3–6 weeks) for production and delivery to take place. Prosthetics 3D printing, on the other hand, is affordable, has a short lead time, and the required materials are readily available. A 3D-printed arm can cost $395 and be produced in one day.
Efforts were made by scientists and medics to create 3D printed prosthetics from 1990 to 1999. There was a breakthrough as their research saw the creation of the first 3D dental implants and organs. However, 3D printed prosthetic arms, fingers, hands, or legs were still a subject of exploration. Finally, in 2011, a prototype of a 3D printed prosthetic hand was created.
American artist, Ivan Owen, created the first 3D printed prosthetic in 2011. A 3D printed prosthetic was not his first creation though—it was a mechanical hand. He created this for a steampunk convention and posted a video online of the crafting process. After another collaboration with a carpenter amputee, the project caught the attention of a mother. Her son needed an artificial hand, and prosthetics then were expensive. Owen got to know about her and requested that a 3D printer manufacturing company donate two 3D printers. His request was granted and he created the first 3D-printed prosthetic hand. The issue of the son outgrowing the prosthetic wasn't much of a problem because the printed hand allows for scalability.
The most common 3D printed prosthetics are:
- 3D Printed Prosthetic Hand: Prosthetic hands are made for people who have suffered the loss of a limb from the wrist. E-nable prosthetics, an association that oversees a network of makers, enthusiasts, or humanitarians, create different 3D models of prosthetics hands. Some of these models are printed and donated to hundreds of people across the world.
- 3D Printed Prosthetic Arm: Prosthetic arms can be a combination of a hand and forearm, or a hand, arm, and forearm. Hero prosthetics are acknowledged as the first clinically-approved 3D printed prosthetic arm. Among its functionalities are high five, grab, thumbs up, and pitch. It is aesthetically pleasing and loved especially by children because of the variety of super action figures it represents. The myoelectric functionality makes it possible for the user to have a certain level of control over their 3D printed arm prosthetic.
- 3D Printed Prosthetic Foot: Prosthetic feet allow users to walk. These are usually made with either elastic heel configurations or solid ankle cushioned heels (SACH). Upya by Exoneo is an affordable, dynamic, and fully biomechanical prosthetic foot that copies the actual anatomy of the toes, ankle, and heel. This allows users to experience the same feeling as a natural foot.
Yes, it is safe to use 3D printed prosthetics, if the right specifications and product quality are met. The strength and quality of the materials used in the build process will be the basis for measuring the safety of 3D printed prosthetics. Incorrect materials usually break easily because of their inability to bear or sustain the weight of the user.
Prosthetics that are 3D printed offer many benefits compared to their conventionally manufactured counterparts. One main benefit is the scaling and alignment option of the 3D printed models. Another is the cost and time efficiency that the process offers as well as the wide availability of the material.
The materials used in 3D printed prosthetics are those that are durable and lightweight such as plastic. As an added benefit, the internal structure comprises lightweight materials—carbon fiber, titanium, or aluminum. An artificial prosthetic weight will generally depend on the type of prosthetic and the constituent material. An above-the-knee 3D printed prosthetic weighs about 1.54 kgs, while its traditional counterpart averages 3.62 kgs.
A prosthetic that has been properly manufactured will last for about 3–5 years. A child who is fast-growing, however, would require replacements from time to time. This is because the body part to which the item attaches would have outgrown the 3D printed prosthetic as the child ages.
No, 3D printed prosthetics are not expensive, especially when compared to traditional prosthetics. You can get a working 3D printed prosthetic for $395. The conventional types are usually sold for thousands of dollars.
3D printed prosthetics are generally cost-effective but some high-end designs are expensive. The Hero 3D printed prosthetic arm, created by Open Bionics, for example, has a price range of $10,000-$20,000. It is somewhat cheaper than the conventional bionic prosthetic arm, however. Some charitable organizations, like Kinetic - founded by Mat Bowtell, and Free 3D Hands - have distributed free 3D printed prosthetic arms to many. They have also created assembly manuals for those who wish to create their own prosthetics at home.
A notable online marketplace for the purchase of 3D printed prosthetics is Indiamart.
3D printed prosthetics are still in their infancy stage but have great potential. However, it may be wrong to assume that the technology will completely replace its traditional counterpart. Moreover, a major factor to consider is its acceptance in the medical industry. The first 3D printed bionic arm is clinically-approved; as such when regulatory authorities show interest and give their approval, prosthetic 3D printing will become more commonplace as a fabrication process that will be accepted in society.
This article provided a summary of the use of 3D printing technology to create prosthetic devices. To learn more about prosthetics 3D printing, especially on the materials and processes in use, contact one of Xometry's application engineers.
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