3D -Printed Prosthetics? Welcome to the Future

Photo by Nino Liverani

3D -Printed Prosthetics? Welcome to the Future

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The world of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs is no longer just touching stories about creative ways to help animals.

I’m sure you all remember when—with the help of committed people and enthusiasts of this technology—Uga the turtle got back on its feet and a penguin, named Blondas, at the Warsaw Zoo received a 3D-printed beak, which was widely reported on local morning news shows. Thanks to IFox and a veterinary practice ProVet, a schnauzer named Furia, whose paw has been deformed since birth, was fitted with a prosthetic limb printed using a Zortrax M200 printer.
Stories like that restore faith in humanity, and when it comes to prostheses made using the additive manufacturing technology, we are at an entirely different stage of development.
We’re now able to carry out advanced works on developing an artificial heart (you can read all about how Zortrax has contributed to this project in our post about a 3D-printed heart). Dental prosthetists spend nearly half of their time not bending over a dental chair but sitting in front of their computers designing and modeling dentures using scanners and 3D printers. What up until recently seemed to take up hours spent on sculpting in wax, now takes only minutes. And despite the great optimism that prevailed a few years back, we still can’t print out a tooth in five minutes. Nevertheless, we’re dealing with a giant leap in technology that has already become widespread.

3D-Printed Prostheses Are Here

See this. 7-year-old Hailey Dawson thrown out her first ball during the October MLB game between the Astros and Dodgers. She pitched the ball using her prosthetic hand, obviously made with a 3D printer. Experts say the strike was superb.
Then, 20-year-old Penelope Heller went through a sternum replacement surgery. Because of a rare type of bone cancer, she must have had her whole sternum section removed three years ago. The off-the-shelf implant she was initially given started to cause breathing issues and pain as it turned out she was allergic to one of the materials used in its production. As a result, she received a fully customized 3D-printed titanium and polymer sternum and rib cage implant—it’s a good idea to read more on this subject. It’s a fascinating story of fighting a rare disease.
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3D Printing is the Route Towards Accessibility

With 3D printing, cosmetic and functional prostheses have become hundreds of times more accessible. This is no exaggeration—such is the difference in the purchase price of a traditional vs. a 3D-printed prosthesis. The price is terribly important here, especially because in most cases it is the patient who has to cover the costs. Parents and their children who grow fast and thus must have their prostheses replaced every so often are particularly affected. Especially given the fact that each prosthesis has a lifespan of only five years and costs 5,000-50,000 USD. The 3D printing technology allows reducing these prices to considerably lower amounts while maintaining the comfort and safety.
A whole community developed around the idea of universal accessibility not only for production but also for design. It cannot be ignored in the debate about the future of 3D-printed prosthetics. The E-nabling The Future blog constitutes one of the more important places for members of the community which now comprises not only 3D printing designers, engineers, and enthusiasts, but also therapists, academics, physicians, and artists. Their work results in numerous research reports (such as this one), paving their way to R&D departments in major corporations.

The Future of 3D Prosthetics

What’s next? Being able to use new materials in 3D printing, such as titanium used in the sternum implant mentioned earlier, looks very promising. It will allow attaining higher durability and even more precision of the print while keeping the low weight of the final product. Not to mention other issues, such as neutrality for the immune system.

We can also observe that movements of these artificial body parts are becoming more natural and smooth. What is also of importance here, is that at the same time, controlling the prosthesis became more unnoticeable. All this is possible due to the application of chips and sensors designed to emulate natural movements. When coupled with cover materials that are more pleasant to the touch, chances are that 3D-printed prostheses will become not only easily-accessible but also comfortable and personalized.

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