It is no surprise that 3D printing has taken the medical world by storm. From printing skin for burn victims, to creating hearing-aid shells, it has proven to provide reliable aid to patients. As of late, it has revolutionized the construction of prostheses.
The first 3D-printed prosthetic was created in 2011 by Ivan Owen and Richard Van As. Originally an artist living in Washington, Owen had posted a video of a mechanical hand he created for a Steampunk convention. The video began gaining traction and made it all the way to South Africa where it was viewed by Van As, a carpenter who had lost 4 fingers in a work accident. Van As had been told by medical professionals that prosthetics would cost around $10,000 per finger, so instead, he reached out to Owen to collaborate on a prosthetic for himself. The two had nearly finished the project when they received an email from a woman named Yolandi.
Yolandi also lived in South Africa and had a 5-year-old son, Liam, who had been born with no fingers on his right hand. Similarly to Van As, she could not afford a prosthetic for her son. She discovered Owen and Van As’s project after stumbling across their blog and she felt inspired to reach out. The duo immediately changed their course of action and began making plans for Liam’s hand. The biggest challenge they faced was attempting to create a prosthetic that could grow with Liam. At 5 years old, he would rapidly outgrow anything the duo could make. According to Owen, this is what led them to 3D printing: “If we could develop a design that was printable, it would be possible to rescale and reprint the design as Liam grew, essentially making it possible for his device to grow with him.” They created Liam’s “Robohand” with a 3D printer that had been donated by MakerBot.
While Liam received a happy ending, there are many who face a very different reality. The need for 3D-printed prosthetics originated a decade ago in response to the steep cost of normal prosthetics. Today, the average prosthetic limb still costs over $60,000. Fortunately, innovations in 3D printing continue to offer relief for those who cannot meet such demanding prices. Just last week, British college student, Luke Cox, created a functional prosthetic for a little over $25. Cox was born with ectrodactyly, leaving him without fingers on his right hand. He felt inspired to provide a realistically-priced prosthetic for those in need. His invention has opened the door to provide prosthetics for millions of people that otherwise could not afford one.
Cox isn’t the only one revolutionizing prosthetic care. A group at USC known as 3D4E is working on a project called “Freehand” that specializes in 3D printing prosthetic arms for children. If you are interested in learning more, visit their website or connect with them on Instagram, @3d4e_usc.