It seems that each year brings the culmination of another medical breakthrough. While research into illnesses and genomics has accelerated, solutions for physical conditions have evolved in lockstep. Digital design has thankfully made this possible — especially with prosthetics.
Earlier prosthetics shared critical flaws, despite their usefulness. Historically, they have been cumbersome, uncomfortable, maladaptive, prohibitively expensive, and poorly functioning. Treatment time has always been a challenge for medical professionals and their patients as well, with older devices taking many days to design, manufacture, and fit. During this process, patients have often failed to receive the necessary care.
Analyzing Prosthetic Costs and Availability
It soon became evident that in order to remedy these issues, technology needed to intervene. Enter 3D printing — a modern hero for the injured and disabled. While healthcare is already costly, these costs disproportionately affect those without financial security. Consider The Guardian’s story affirming the need for prosthetics in developing countries, coupled with the “scarcity of care” in those regions. This shortage of resources and availability leads to a skyrocketing cost of care.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 30 million people need prosthetics and mobility aids, yet only 20% have them. Regions home to millions are often served by only dozens of prosthetists, accenting the problem at hand.
Compounding the cost issues, pediatric prosthetic devices have limited lifespans since children are constantly growing. The Jordan Thomas Foundation states American families spend anywhere from $21,000 to $300,000 by periodically replacing a prosthetic over ten years. Patients in developed and developing countries alike grapple with financial challenges surrounding healthcare, given that insurance providers don’t foot the bill for most prosthetics.
3D-printed limbs aim to solve this issue by reducing the financial burden. These newer devices are crafted efficiently and are incredibly economical than their intricate, bionic counterparts. Enabling the Future, a network with over two thousand 3D printers, produces artificial hands and arms, costing only £40. 3D printing is a pathway to widespread accessibility.
3D Model Ergonomics and Appearance
Since 3D-printed limbs are digitally designed, they can be manufactured at scale to extremely tight tolerances. It’s also much easier to create prosthetics that accommodate all body types. Designs can be verified, inspected, and printed rapidly. In fact, users can create new 3D schematics and share them in as little as 30 minutes. Testing new iterations and making adjustments is simple.
Companies can also reduce excess bulk via 3D printing. What if a patient’s entire arm is missing? 3D-printed replacements usually weigh less than other alternatives, and engineers can directly manage weight distribution along a new limb. These customizations grant the wearer added comfort while preserving anatomical symmetry. This does wonders for spinal alignment and posture.
3D printing involves various types of plastics, which are easy to color using dyes and pigments. Printers can choose from endless color options to add personality to their prosthetics if desired. This has been helpful for younger wearers who prefer fun colors and modern designs. Jorge Zuniga, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Nebraska Omaha, found that children prefer toy-like designs. 3D-printed offerings help younger patients integrate more easily with their peers.
3D-Printing Success Stories and Facing Future Challenges
Companies are entering the 3D-printing space through worldwide projects. Nia Technologies has introduced its 3D PrintAbility technology to communities in Tanzania and Uganda. These solutions incorporate steps for scanning, designing, and printing new limbs for disadvantaged patients. This process has a gentler learning curve.
Professionals and patients have also leveraged Autodesk’s BUILD Space in Boston to design 3D prosthetics. Braden Leonard lost his hand in a gruesome biking accident and soon struggled with a common shortcoming of today’s prosthetics: poor durability. Leonard had no experience with 3D design, yet worked with Starting with Tinkercad and eventually Fusion 360 to experiment and create a worthy replacement. Designers can use Autodesk’s multi-axis machinery to form crucial interlocking components, which bear the brunt of stress during use. Scaling Autodesk’s software to accommodate numerous patients is easy. Leonard is doing just that — designing sturdy prosthetics for his peers.
Non-profits are harnessing this technology in the developing world. LimbForge has created a 3D design-and-printing suite built upon Autodesk’s Forge Platform and Fusion 360. This approach has facilitated the birth of simple, user-friendly software that technicians enjoy using. This printing method is unified and streamlined, and the technology has been an excellent medium for learning basic CAD — and has even garnered the support of Doctors Without Borders.
The future is bright for healthcare with 3D printing in the mix. This technology confronts many of today’s care challenges directly and aims to be a flexible solution that will grow alongside our medical knowledge.
Check all the additive and 3D printing functionality in Fusion 360 today.