Prosthetics have come a long way. Today they are much more realistic and useful. They are amazingly expensive, too. Professionally made prosthetics range from $5,000 to $50,000 for a leg and for $3,000 to $10,000 for a hand. The person has already had the loss of a limb and then to tack on the cost of a prosthetic is quite a challenge. Additionally, they only last 3 to 5 years; it as expensive as a car and lasts only half the time on average.
3D printed prosthetics have a substantial advantage in cost over professional prosthetics. At about a tenth of the cost, 3D printed prosthetics have real financial appeal. Beyond costs, 3D printed prosthetics can be individualized to the user. Children in particular not only outgrow their prosthetics quickly their tastes change. Lowering the costs makes it possible for children to have more freedom in expressing themselves.
3D printed prosthetics are not without challenges. 3D printers are not cheap themselves especially to get high enough quality printing for a prosthetic. Legs need to be strong enough to support body weight and typical 3D plastic filament is insufficient. It is difficult to get more advanced material. Printing with titanium and carbon fiber is at a different level. 3D printed prosthetics are well suited toward underserved people struggling with the costs and for children who outgrow prosthetics quickly.
Ironically, despite the high cost, usage rates for prosthetics are only a little above 1/3. I’m hopeful that 3D printing with lower cost and more individualization will lead to a higher usage rate.
E-nable is one organization dedicated to lowering the cost of upper limb devices through 3D printing by volunteers. Their story starts with Liam, a young South African boy, who needed a hand. He persevered through prototypes and eventually received the first 3D printed hand. E-nable facilitates and offers open source designs to make hands that can look very different than stereotypical prosthetics. I can only imagine an 8 year old using an Iron Man like forearm more than a traditional prosthetic.
Sources and Further Reading