3d printed prosthetics

10 Ways 3D Printed Prosthetics Improve Lives

December 30, 2020 - Emily Newton

Prosthetics are a necessity for those without limbs. Various conditions as well as amputations all throughout the world create an ongoing need for new, artificial limbs. However, the main issues with standard prosthetics are that they’re expensive and take a while to manufacture. These impediments lead to a lack of access — those who need them the most often aren’t able to get them. Instead, 3D printed prosthetics are becoming the solution.

Through platforms like AutoCAD, designers and medical professionals can work together to create 3D prosthetics that are compatible with virtually any body type. These creations offer improvements over standard prosthetics — and a better quality of life for their users.

1. Cost and Access

The costs of standard prosthetics vary by location, medical insurance and the type of limb lost. However, these kinds of prosthetics are typically expensive — and not everyone has access to health insurance that can cover those costs. Throughout the world, prosthetics can range from $5,000 to $50,000, or higher in extreme circumstances.

3D printing can lower that price tag. This form of printing is becoming abundant throughout the world — which means the materials they require are decreasing in cost. Resins, for instance, are inexpensive.

3D printed prosthetics offer a vastly cheaper alternative, with some going for $100 or even less. A price drop means more access around the world for everyone who needs them.

2. Speed

The speed of production is also a hindrance to regular prosthetics. It can take weeks or months to create the right limb for each individual who needs one. The slowness, just like expenses, means less access. Health care and design professionals will get caught up working on a few projects at a time.

3D printing happens in a matter of hours. Once the experts input the design and supply the printer with the right materials, it can produce the prosthetic quickly. This improved speed could mean big things for the industry. If production happens on a faster scale, then more people can get their prosthetic limbs more quickly.

3. Customization

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 30 million people worldwide need prosthetics. This number may seem small in comparison to the entire world’s population, but it gets more complicated when you consider the needs of each individual. No two prosthetics should be the same. Each person will need their own fit and model.

Standard prosthetics can only go so far. They need molds and casting. If an error occurs or the patient needs adjustments, the extra process could add to the time and costs. 3D printing offers more leniency with customization. Since it’s fast and inexpensive, experts and patients can work together to create the right fit. If something’s off, a few changes won’t add drastic costs.

4. Mobility

3D printing for prosthetics ranges from hands and arms to legs. It’s an innovative field that brings people the limbs they need. However, patients may be hesitant at first because they’re curious about how much mobility they’ll get or regain with a prosthetic.

Thanks to innovations in the tech world, 3D limbs have come far enough that they can respond to impulses from muscles in the body. Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit organization, is developing myoelectric designs that respond to the impulses that come from muscle movements.

This technique gives a wide range of mobility to the patient, and the prosthetic mimics human limbs. It’s a step forward for bringing 3D printed prosthetics to their full potential.

5. Sensations

Sensations operate alongside mobility. People will want to feel and touch with their prosthetics the same way they can with other parts of their bodies. Similar to mobility, new prosthetics are offering solutions for providing people with human sensations.

At the University of Utah, researchers have developed sensors that work seamlessly. These sensors implant into an individual’s nerves and the electrodes connect to the muscles. Then, the information loop in the device transfers signals to and from the brain, creating the sensation of touch. Developers named it the “LUKE Arm” — based on when Luke Skywalker received his robotic hand in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

While the University didn’t specify if researchers used 3D printing for these prosthetics, combining the two fields would create an innovation that’s accessible and functional for everyone.

6. Collaboration

Innovation happens when different fields and individuals work together. Regular prosthetics combine a number of professions, but 3D printing brings even more people in on the project. The knowledge that goes into 3D printing spans from the medical field to those who can work with computer-aided design (CAD) programs and novel materials.

Without this collaboration, people wouldn’t be getting the assistance or prosthetics they need. It’s what keeps new gadgets and tech progressing forward. It’s how different tools come about, too.

People need various prosthetics and treatments based on their condition and medical history. The overlap of industries and disciplines is what ultimately changes lives for the better.

7. Expanding Beyond Humans

While humans are the primary focus for 3D printing and prosthetics, animals can benefit as well. Whether the animal is born without a limb or loses it in an accident, prosthetics can help.

One common example is Millie, the greyhound from Australia. The family that owns Millie searched for a solution for her missing paw, but standard prosthetics were expensive. Instead, they went with 3D printing, which gave their greyhound the proper fit and mobility.

Now, she can run freely without any hiccups. It’s a sign of how expansive and powerful 3D printing is. With it, animals of all kinds can get new limbs.

8. Sustainability

3D printing comes with countless benefits for those who need prosthetics — on small scales and globally. Since it’s versatile with respect to which materials experts can use, eco-friendly practices are possible.

Using recycled plastics, for instance, helps create a new prosthetic from old material that would otherwise go to waste. This reuse creates a more circular economy. Aaron Westbrook is one activist pushing for this kind of recycling.

Westbrook has made it his mission to focus on 3D printing prosthetics with only recycled materials like plastics. Then, the industry can benefit people on an individual level and globally by helping the environment.

9. Breaking the Stigma

A lack of access leads to a lack of standardization. When people don’t receive accommodations for their missing limbs, it can create an ostracizing effect. The stigma around disabilities is widespread. However, with more ways to create prosthetics, that stigma can begin to dissolve.

One example is with children. Normalizing accommodations like prosthetics from a young age can help show kids and young adults that missing limbs are not entirely uncommon. Then, they can adjust as they get older — and changing the prosthetics will be easier because they cost less than standard ones, too.

It’s a small but necessary step. 3D printing can help break the stigma and normalize receiving the right accommodations for all needs.

10. More Innovation

Finally, 3D printing for prosthetics is a gateway for more innovation to come. Limbs could just be the beginning of what’s possible for 3D printers. For instance, printing organs is a topic that launched into the center of conversations around the world.

Experiments and trials have started for printing artificial organs like lungs, livers and even hearts. If experts can solidify a way to print various body parts, patients will all kinds of ailments and needs can receive the help they deserve.

Furthermore, as 3D printing becomes more common, these procedures and creations should decrease in cost. Then, the health care industry opens up to properly accommodate everyone.

3D Printed Prosthetics Are the Future

Throughout the world, prosthetics must be accessible to the public. Costs and a lack of production efficiency stand in the way of progress. With 3D printing, prosthetics can become more universal. They help people in overt and subtle ways, on personal and global levels. With the right innovation, they are a beacon of what’s to come.

Featured Image Source: Cdwelly, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist. She is the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized.

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