The amazing new technology of 3-D printing is becoming increasingly more useful in making prosthetics for people who have lost body parts. The replacement body part can be designed to specifically fit on the remaining body area and can be made as an exact match to what was lost. Rather than carving out the prosthetic from metal or plastic, the pieces of the prosthetic are built up dot by dot to form a precise 3-D structure.
A computer is used to create the design for a prosthetic and many software packages that are well-tested and commonly used are sufficient for designing objects that are to be 3-D printed. The 3-D printer works similarly to a regular household-type printer that most people have in their homes, however, instead of placing ink on paper, a 3-D printer that can make objects squeezes out bits of melted plastic that forms layers in a very precise way.
An advantage of 3-D printing of prosthetic devices is they can be made one at a time for an individual and do not need to be mass-produced. Also, the cost is minimum and children can receive new prosthetic devices as needed when they grow. A reported cost for a prosthetic hand for a child is $5.
While many prosthetics that have been made using 3-D printing are hands or limbs, it is also possible to make small parts for faces that fit just right and have the exact shape of the body piece that is missing. It is possible to replace part of a nose, ear or cheek with 3-D printing of body parts. 3-D printing has also been used to replace body parts of animals, such as a beak of a bird or foot of a duckling. In the case of the bird beak, the 3-D printed top half of the beak had precisely the shape needed to fit the bottom half of the beak.
Future developments of 3-D printing will likely be in hip and knee replacement parts. Rather than using standard devices with limited shapes, hip and knee replacements in the future can be made to exactly fit the person’s anatomy.
A recent report described the 3-D printing of a prosthetic arm for a 13-year-old girl who lost her right arm below the elbow in a boating accident. She recently had a new prosthetic arm created using 3-D printing and it only took about 7 minutes to make each finger. The cost of the arm was about $200, whereas the cost of a traditional prosthetic arm could be over $50,000. The 3-D printed robotic arm has an opposable thumb and was made in pink, which made the girl very happy.
In another case, a prosthetic hand was made with 3-D printing for a 4-year-old girl, who was born with a birth defect such that her left hand only had a thumb and “pinky” finger. Additionally, a boy who had symbrachydactyly, which is a birth defect that caused development of a dysfunctional hand, recently received a prosthetic hand generated via 3-D printing. It was reported that his hand cost $15 to manufacture.
Beyond arms, hands and legs, body part prosthetics that can be made using 3-D printing include teeth, heart valves and likely even smaller parts of the body that cannot currently be manufactured using traditional construction methods. It is likely that 3-D printing of prosthetics will continue to become increasingly useful in the very near future.
By Margaret Lutze