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3D printed prosthetics: Meet the real revolution


Additive Manufacturing is making an incredible difference in the medical industry. From 3D printed hearts to knee replacements and 3D scanners, 3D technologies can change or even save millions of lives. Another interesting aspect of using 3D printing in this field is prosthetics. You might have heard about 3D printed prosthetic arms, but that’s not all there is to it. How else can we benefit from Additive Manufacturing when it comes to prosthetics design?

We will go through all the advantages of additive manufacturing for this sector, and see what the latest innovations and evolutions are regarding 3D printed garments!  

Overview of 3D printing in the medical sector

The medical sector benefits from the wide range of advantages offered by Additive Manufacturing. Thanks to the mass-customization opportunities and the flexibility of the manufacturing and design processes, 3D printing becomes a real alternative for this sector. In the future, this manufacturing technology could be used to replace human organ transplants, significantly speed-up surgical procedures, but also produce cheaper and more adaptable versions of required surgical tools. Using technology to rethink and improve the way we produce medical devices leads to great opportunities. 

This technology can also improve the lives of those reliant on prosthetic limbs. That is a fact, we can notice a growing interest in adapted orthopedic insoles, orthosis, and prosthetics manufactured using additive manufacturing.

Why is using 3D printing for prosthetics so interesting?

Manufacturing prosthetic is expensive

Thanks to the constant evolution of 3D printing technologies, the medical industry is facing new challenges. In its own way, 3D printing is revolutionizing the field of rehabilitative medicine and tackling a particular issue: prosthetics. According to NGO LIMBS, only 5% of the nearly 40 million amputees in the developing world have access to prosthetic devices or assistance. Many companies such as Unyq are using the advantages of generative design and additive manufacturing to create a brand new approach to prosthetics both in terms of form and functionality. Indeed, some companies are focusing on bringing these advantages to the developing world, to the amputees in environments that lack the medical infrastructure or resources. The goal here is to support the labor-intensive and expensive prospect of traditional prosthetic manufacturing.

Manufacturing adapted and quality devices for amputees is actually a struggle all over the world, as these prosthetics are expensive and most of the time, poorly adapted to the patient’s particularities. New technologies such as this one can also be a major advantage for prosthetists, helping them in the development of customizable prostheses. From the creation of 3D printed prosthetic hands to functional wrists, solutions can be offered with additive manufacturing. Engineers and researchers are opening new possibilities for prosthetics

Advantages of 3D printing prosthetics

  • Innovation: Innovate without worrying about the limitations of traditional manufacturing

Thanks to 3D printers, rapid prototyping has never been so easy. Iterate your ideas and projects faster thanks to this technology. Going further than traditional prosthetics manufacturing will enable great future developments. 

  • Customization: Create adapted prosthetics

The customization part is the most important argument here. Getting adapted devices and prosthetics will benefit the patients and improve their quality of life during a limb loss. Customizable functional prostheses creation is now possible thanks to 3D printers.

  • Cost: Why are 3D printed prosthetics cheaper?

Once again, developing such a complex project as prosthetics is expensive with traditional manufacturing techniques. Especially if you want to adapt it to the morphology of the patient, additive manufacturing appears to be the most efficient technique to get low-cost prosthetics. It is becoming a life-changing solution to produce prosthetics in areas where the access to such devices is complicated, or impossible. 

No minimum of order, no need to build an expensive mold, you only need a 3D file to print your project. Prosthetics are better, and more efficient while custom-made. However, customization is quite expensive with traditional manufacturing.

They used 3D printing to develop prosthetics

Several 3D printed prosthetics projects have already been developed all around the world. See how 3D printing materials and technologies are helping to create functional artificial limbs. Here are a few examples of 3D printed prosthetics:

3D printed prosthetic arm providing feedbacks

Lorenzo Spreafico is a student at the University of Leeds. He created a prosthetic arm with vibrotactile feedback. The student implemented pressure sensors at the tip of each finger of the prosthesis, this means the amputee can feel when they’re touching something. This prosthetic arm is his final year project in the Product Design bachelors at the University of Leeds in the UK. Thanks to additive manufacturing, Lorenzo Spreafico was able to lower the price of the device! The first prototype, called T1 is under €3,500. The student explains: “There is a huge gap in the development of prostheses: although we are developing extremely advanced technology to simulate human movement and dexterity, there is much less work done when it comes to simulating human touch“.

Hand prosthetics

This might not come as a surprise to you, but it is a topic worth mentioning. According to research done by Amputee Coalition, on average there is an amputation done every 30 seconds, and life after such a procedure is hard. But there are people out there using the latest technology innovations to help others. E-nable is a global network of passionate volunteers who help amputees. Thanks to 3D printing, amputees can have a new E-nable device in a short amount of time. The prosthetic hand is fully customized, matching the limb of the user, costs only a fraction of normal prosthetic costs, and dramatically improves the life of the amputee. Bringing all those aspects together in one product was impossible before Additive Manufacturing. Prosthetics are either cheap, but not functional and not personalized, or personalized and very expensive and they always take a lot of time to produce. 3D printing is truly changing the world of medicine and engineering.

Leg prosthetics

Looking absolutely stunning and even impossible Exo by William Root breaks the boundaries of logic. He brings a new level of the esthetics of prostheses. His prosthetic leg is not only beautiful but also fully functional. First of all the designer improved the time-consuming process of manufacturing a prosthesis. Normally, the amputee had to have a mold done of his limb, then a cast was made, vacuum form, check for fit, assembly, and then adjustments were done. Of course, the tedious process has to be repeated again until the fit is just right. When it comes to 3D printing, you scan the limb, adjust the 3D model, and then print the design. Simple, fast, and effective. And in addition to that, it is beautiful. The prosthesis can be fully customized for the user, comfortable, and expressing their character.

Hero Arm

Hero Arm is a project developed by Open Bionics, who aims to turn disabilities into superpowers with 3D printed bionic arms for children and adults. Using Selective Laser Sintering 3D printing, with Nylon PA12, they develop prosthetics covers inspired by superheroes such as Iron Man, or fictional universes such as Star-Wars or Frozen.

Manufacturing prosthetics in remote areas

Guillermo Martínez is the founder of Ayúdame3D, he went from building robots to building prosthetics hands. At first, it was just for fun, and now, Guillermo Martínez helps people in Kenya by developing prosthetic limbs helping amputees living a more normal life. The founder explains : “I went there, tested out the prostheses, and saw that people were getting to grips with it quickly after using it. It felt great. I considered stopping there, but I loved the feeling of being able to help others so much that I decided to start Ayúdame3D.” (Source Business Insider) Resources in Kenya are limited, Guillermo Martinez managed to create hands costing only $50 thanks to 3D printing. 

Millie: the first-ever dog with a 3D printed prosthetic leg in Australia

People are not the only ones whose lives changed thanks to Additive Manufacturing. We already talked about a few animals such as a penguin and a duck with a prosthesis, now it’s time for Millie, the greyhound from Australia. She’s a rescue dog, which was kicked out because of a bad paw. Unfortunately, professional prosthetics cost 10 000$ and they are not as personalized. The owners turned to Autodesk, a leader in 3D modeling and CAD software. With Fusion 360 they designed a new, ideally-fitting prosthesis and then 3D printed it. Most of all, 3D printed prosthesis matches exactly the needs of Mille and her limb. It doesn’t cause her any discomfort and allows her to play and be a happy pup. It was also a quick process, and on top of everything was much cheaper.

What is next?

The future of 3D printed prosthetics

It is definitely bright! As you’ve seen in this article, the presented examples show how beneficial Additive Manufacturing is to the medical industry. 3D printing prosthetics are cheaper by thousands of dollars. They are also much more comfortable, fitting exactly the limb, not causing pain to the user, and they are highly customized. This level of personalization has never been achievable before.

Do you have a prosthetics manufacturing project?

Using an online service bureau such as Sculpteo, there is no minimum order quantity, from a single object to 10 000+ parts, you can 3D print the exact amount of parts you need. With 10+ years of expertise in additive manufacturing for production and prototyping, Sculpteo is also offering rigorous quality control. With our online 3D printing service, you get professional 3D printing at your fingertips with +75 materials and finishes to develop your most ambitious projects, such as prosthetics. We’ll take care of the rest in our industrial ISO 9001 factory.

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