The process of fitting and purchasing an artificial limb can be expensive and extremely time-consuming, and many in third-world countries can’t afford them at all. There is new hope, however, as 3D printer owners are now printing their own prosthetic limbs, hands, and more; saving themselves hundreds or thousands of dollars and providing customization that might be difficult to achieve otherwise. Best of all, as they collaborate and share their knowledge and designs, the idea of simple, affordable prosthetics moves closer to reality.
For a perfect example of the best aspects of 3D printing artificial limbs, look no further than Ivan Owen. After creating a working mechanical hand prop with a 3D printer, he posted a demonstration video on YouTube. He was then contacted by Richard Van As, an amputee from South Africa who saw potential in his design. Together they created a prosthetic finger for Richard that functioned quite well for his needs.
If the story had stopped there, it would have been impressive enough, but the two went on to create an entire prosthetic hand for a young boy named Liam, who was born without fingers on his right hand. With their design, which they called the “Robohand”, Liam can now control the fingers with a series of cables attached to a brace, giving him the ability to grasp objects. Best of all, the design is available for free, and users can easily scale the design larger or smaller as needed. See Liam’s hand in action here:
Ivan, Richard, and Liam’s story illustrates some of the most important benefits of 3D printing and prosthetics, namely collaboration and lower costs. The average prosthetic device may cost more than $600, for example, while the materials cost for the “Robohand” and similar devices is often well under $100. Of course, 3D printers themselves aren’t cheap, but many businesses and individuals are offering their 3D printer up for those who will cover the cost of materials.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of all, though, is the sense of collaboration this small community enjoys. Most designers, like Ivan and Richard, offer their prosthetic designs for free, with a public domain license. This allows others to adapt, improve, and build upon their designs. As others continue to share their modifications, the options continue to grow.
In the near future, it is easy to imagine that an amputee could browse a library of possible prosthetic limbs, select a design, and take it to a 3D printing location for printing, as simply as we might take a document to a print shop. Even if a buyer pays a bit more than the cost of materials, the variety and customization available are invaluable, and costs would still be lower than current methods.
The future of 3D printing and prosthetics is bright, and we will likely see more and more heartwarming stories like Liam’s “Robohand” on a regular basis. As the internet connects inventors with those in need, 3D printing provides the necessary key to turning their inventions and ideas into physical reality.