Prosthetics printed in 3D have really opened up the world of possibilities to amputees. Typically prosthetic devices are “one size fits all” and do not really express the wearers personally. But, 3D printing allows for prosthetic devices to be customized exactly to the wearers needs and fit on a micro-level.
Another bonus is that 3D printing of prosthetics is a fraction of the cost that a traditional high tech prosthetic device. A prosthetic can be made using 3D printing technology and shipped anywhere in the world, or conversely, the plans can be uploaded anywhere via the Internet and printing out at any location desired.
Artificial hands, fingers, arms, legs, feet, toes, hips and other parts of the human anatomy can be scanned with MRI and/or CT scan, modified and printing out using biologically compatible plastics.
How It Works
Typically, 3D software is used to create a perfectly fitting prosthetic device. It can be made from a host of materials and has the ability for natural motion.
What used to take weeks or months to create can be created in a few hours. What used to take fitting after fitting now can be fitted accurately the first time.
One of the main concerns of the prosthetic wearer is comfort (and functionality). If the device is not comfortable it can make life unbearable. With traditional devices the experience of “hot spots” is common. The device will rub up against the skin and cause painful areas. These “hot spots” usually require a visit back to the doctor for another fitting or to have the device adjusted.
The use 3D printing all but eliminates the need to have multiple fittings, since the technology is that precise. The devices fit well making the patient feel comfortable in using the prosthetics.
New Exciting Experiments
Prosthetic devices printed with a 3D bioprinter has largely been limited to using manufactured materials but it the near future it may not be the case. Imagine being able to cover a prosthetic in human skin. The wearer’s own skin can be grown to cover the prosthetic device. We are still a couple of years away from actually manufacturing a limb that is made of human skin, bone and muscle but we have actually been able to regrow a human ear.
By using harvested stem cells from bone marrow or even a human hair it is possible to grow an ear (see Youtube link for more info). The skeleton of the ear is created using 3D printing technology except it is made from an acid that is coated in stem cells. Growing the ear successfully has been already achieved. Keeping the ear alive is where the problem comes into play.
Skin requires nourishment to stay alive in the form of blood. The “food” if you will is brought to the ear by tiny vessels. In recreating those tiny vessels, scientists have run into a roadblock.
There are many scientists and research facilities that are dedicated to experimenting with medical 3D printing technologies to find a way to create actual replacement limbs that can be transplanted on to the body. In the near future it may be very possible to have an arm or a leg made to order. In the meantime, however, 3D additive manufacturing can be used to build prosthetic limbs for humans (and even animals such as duck feet).
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