Bringing people back to being whole again

When looking at 3D printing, generally there is a focus on the industrial 3D Printer or on how you can use desktop 3D Printers to make your life easier. Yet, the 3D Printing process is more expansive then we tend to give credit, expanding into almost every sector of life. One such sector which has utilized the 3D Printing process is Prosthetics. By printing arms, legs, and other appendages, those who would traditionally be without these appendages have a means of becoming whole again.

Animal Prosthetics

While it may seem a bit odd to look at animal prosthetics as a starting point, there are some very key developments which have occurred because of non-evasive procedures and testing on high risk animals. And even though, for the most part, animal prosthetics have not been 3D Printed, but rather fabricated in other standard prosthetic manufacturing processes, knowing how these have sparked innovations in human prosthetics (which use 3D printing) is important. For example, Winter, the Bottle nose dolphin (who sparked the blockbuster movie Dolphin Tale), received a prosthetic tale for mobility. Molly, an Appaloosa-Shetland Pony has a prosthetic leg developed by the Louisiana State University team. One may wonder what these developments should do with human Prosthetic advancements. As with most advancements, it takes various iterations to get the right mix. Additionally, the success of a project with amputee animals has sparked research for human mobility, says Wired magazine. In Molly the Pony’s example, the prosthetic leg has encouraged Dwayne Mara to work on osseointegration, attaching a prosthetic directly to the remains of a bone.

The Customizable Arm

The first fully flexible 3D Printed Prosthetic arm Was developed in 2015 by Kenyan based 3DLifePrints (with a partnership with various Asian and African countries) for Sarin (based in Cambodia), an amputee who lost his arm in a fishing accident. At the time, this was a huge advancement for the 3D industry. Yet, the process of creating 3D prosthetics has gained momentum since the DeltaWasp 2040’s advancements in silicone 3D printing. Today, prosthetic companies are creating customized arms and legs in a matter of hours for their clientele. But how is this possible?

The old process vs. new technology

When prosthetic printing first emerged, the development process was much the same as when you create 3D CAD design. The model would be created in the 3D program based upon specifications of the arm or the leg and then the model would be printed. The problem with this method is that:

  1. You had to have very precise measurements to get the model correct
  2. The modeling process could take quite a while to fine tune and

The model would not be catered specifically to the person’s body, no matter what measurements or steps were taken, there would always need to be tweaking.

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This image shows the modeling of a leg in the first development stages. Note that while you can start to see the form, much more development would be needed to make a prosthetic. Image supplied by Siclari Studios.

The modern method for creating prosthetics combines templated technology with form capturing software, thus allowing for highly detailed 3D CAD models in a fraction of the time (depending upon the software and the team, capturing may be conducted in real-time). Omega Scanner 3D, which a hand held 3D Scanner, allows for this real time scanning. To capture the needed area, the good arm or leg is fitted with stickers for the scanner to recognize, the scanner then captures these points and fills in the blanks on the program to create the 3D model. This method creates hyper-realistic models which are custom designed for the patients, leaving very little to no tweaking of the appendage needed.

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Real time scanning produces a highly detailed model which can be mirrored and used for prosthetic 3d printing. Image acquired from Lethbridge Orthotic Prosthetic Services Ltd.

The newer technology is not to diminish the desktop 3D printer or the innovator. Mentally controlled prosthetic arms were developed by such an individual. Easton LaChappelle, a teen, developed a mind controlled prosthetic robo-arm after meeting a girl in Colorado who was born without a right arm. He was 14 when the first arm prototype was made using his desktop 3D printer. Now 21, and with more funding from larger companies, he is embarking on the third version of the robotic hand. Apart from the young age of this developer, the amazing aspect of his design is that it only costs around $250 to print.

It’s not just arms and legs

Where the arm and the leg may have been the beginning mark for the 3D Printed Prosthetics, the medical profession has seen the potential available. The industry has pushed the envelope in developments printing prosthetic ears, noses, and even eyes. But the prosthetics have not only been catered to the external elements of the body. Medical advancements, as well as the ability to quickly print 3D models, have allowed doctors to use prosthetic knee caps, ear drums, and there have even been developments in a fully functional prosthetic heart.

3D printing can provide a means for the creativity, art, and commerce, but the development of something which benefits mankind supersedes the traditional use. We are on the right track with integrating our creativity, innovation, medical knowledge, and apathy into the process. What we will develop from here is unlimited.

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