SIMPLY AMAZING

3-D Printing Is Changing the Future of Prosthetics

Thanks to 3-D printing, a lifetime of prosthetics will cost less than one commercially made device.

12.10.14 10:45 AM ET

Soon enough, anyone with a 3-D printer will be able to build custom prosthetics. No longer will these devices—traditionally created by a doctor—cost thousands of dollars, removing the financial burden families face when members (especially children) may need multiple each year. 

Two companies, e-NABLE and Not Impossible Lab’s Project Daniel, are changing the accessibility of prosthetics for growing children. Both e-NABLE and Not Impossible Labs use open source for designs, meaning anyone with access to a 3D printer and materials can customize and print the design plans. By creating technology for social good, the organizations are opening doors to people who would not be able to obtain prosthetics otherwise.

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E-NABLE began in May 2013 with one prosthetic hand design and 70 volunteers. Now, with the help of over 3,000 medical professionals, teachers, engineers, and students, e-NABLE creates colorful and lightweight 3-D printed prosthetic hands for no cost to those in need. With designs named “The Raptor Hand,” “The Cyborg Beast” and “The Odysseus Hand,” kids feel like superheroes and are proud of their prosthetics. Each hand costs just 50 dollars in materials.

“Our volunteers donate their time, materials, and use of their 3-D printers to create them,” Jen Owen, a member of e-NABLE, said. “If a parent wanted to purchase a 3-D printer of their own and produce hands for their own child, the cost of the printer and the materials to make the hands for their child for the next 10 years would be less than the cost of the creation of one commercially made prosthetic device.”

Though 3-D printed prosthetics are not as strong as commercially created prosthetics and can break after periods of use, they are much easier to fix and replace—a replacement part can be reprinted and assembled in just hours. And while some commercially created prosthetics cannot be immersed in water because of electronic materials, 3D printed prosthetics use a durable plastic that allows hands and arms to be worn in the shower, building the user’s independence. 

“A lot of people want to maintain their privacy and dignity, so they would like a solution they can use in different settings, Elliot Kotek, Not Impossible’s chief of content, said. “That’s also where these 3-D printed and DIY prosthetics can come into play.”

In addition to bringing e-NABLE into classrooms to generate excitement for science, math, and engineering, and teach students how to use 3-D printers, the organization hopes to create outreach missions to bring 3-D printers to underserved nations.

“Our hope is to obtain enough funding to send 3-D printers, materials, and teams of volunteers to train local doctors and nurses how to create the devices in remote areas where there are countless victims of war and natural disasters who could benefit from a simple ‘helping hand,’” Owen said.

In late 2013, Not Impossible’s CEO and founder Mick Ebeling created a 3-D printing prosthetic lab and training facility in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. The mission is to teach any person to use technology for independence and empowerment no matter where they are located.

“Not only could we print an arm for [Project] Daniel, but we could also train a group of locals so they could continue to print 3D arms later on,” Kotek said. “With 3D printing you can continue to use the file and update.”

Not Impossible’s hand and arm design includes the use of customizable Orthoplastic, a breathable plastic to cover the part of the arm where the 3-D printed pieces attach.

According to Kotek, changing the size of the 3-D printed components is not necessary unless the prosthetic is made for a younger child. The entire process of preplanning and printing the hand, brackets, and cuffs takes just over a day. Materials for Not Impossible’s prosthetic arm total around 100 dollars, but are free of charge to those in need with funding help from large corporations like Intel and Precipart. “We encourage businesses to do good,” Kotek said.

The greatest part of open source is that anyone can access prosthetic designs and create them. In addition to the designs found on e-NABLE, prosthetic designs can also be found on Github, a website for uploading and sharing code, and 3-D Hubs  is a great resource to find local printers.