How 3D Printing is Changing Prosthetics

After an amputation, finding the right prosthetic is key – and it’s not that simple. There are tons of factors to consider. And everyone’s experiences are different, there are two big challenges to finding the right prosthetic: cost and fit. But a new (and way cool) technology could be changing all that: 3D printing.

While 3D printing may sound like something out of a movie, it’s actually a very real and booming industry. It’s the process of making a solid, 3D object from a digital model by laying down layer after layer of material. And it can be used to make just about anything. In 2012, industry sales were at $777 million – and by 2025, they’re expected to be at $8.4 billion.

And while a majority of those sales are from large companies using the technology for product prototyping and streamlined development, there is growing promise for the technology to be used to create better fitting, better looking and cheaper prosthetics.

First, let’s talk about fit. Through the use of 3D scanners and digital design software, 3D prototypes can be uniquely designed, printing and fitted to an amputee to create more customized – and comfortable – prosthetics. According to industrial designer Scott Summit, who creates prosthetic legs using 3D printing, through this process, “it’s possible to craft prosthetics that almost perfectly mold to a wearer’s body, unlike more standard models from the past.”

Another major reason people in the health care industry see potential for 3D printing and prosthetics is cost. Prototypes and prosthetics using 3D printing can be done very inexpensively – especially when you consider the cost of a traditional prosthesis.  For example, a traditional prosthetic hand can cost up to $10,000 a finger. MakerBot, a 3D printing company in Brooklyn, makes the RoboHand for a total cost of $150. As 3D printing becomes more commonplace, these costs are expected to go down even more.

Bespoke custom fairing made with 3D printing. Photo credit: Bespoke Innovations

Bespoke custom fairing made with 3D printing. Photo credit: Bespoke Innovations

3D printing also allows people with amputations to customize their prosthetics. Companies like Bespoke use 3D printing to create fairings, or custom-tailored prosthetic leg covers, that are personally designed and customized for each user according to their own aesthetic. And what they design is nothing short or artwork. Check out their website for a gallery of just a few of their designs.

Pretty cool, huh? Check out the video below to see how it’s done. What do you think? Do you know anyone who has worked with a 3D printer for their prosthetic?

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