3D printing first made a serious splash in the field of prosthetics. While it has expanded into many other categories – organ growth, surgical plans, orthodontics – prosthetics remains one of the key areas of innovation in the medical field. In fact, some of today’s top designs are not only technologically brilliant – they demonstrate a kinder, more emotionally intelligent approach to design.
Prosthetic hands can make a critical difference in the way people, particularly children, experience their world. Imagine for a moment beyond just aesthetic appearances. Being able to ride a bike, hold a baseball or a swing – these are things that traditional prosthetics aren’t necessarily able to deliver. Here is where engineering can step in to try to make things better.
3D printing offers the opportunity to customize a prosthetic while taking advantage of advancements in technology as well. The difficulty with making a prosthetic “real” is the challenge of sensors. Finger gripping and wrist motion are often entangled, and difficult to create cheaply. But today’s sensors can go beyond gripping into actual feeling, something that the VA is working on with other partners to recreate. A combination of electrodes that send signals to the brain, where the perception of touch occurs anyway, means thousands of amputees could restore a feeling that is now just called a “phantom.” Textures are also a new innovation, with some prosthetic hands feeling as many as 19 different points.
The challenge, of course, is trying to keep it low budget. Technology is expensive, even though prosthetics are cheaper by comparison today as the tech becomes more common. But the demand is strong and the technology is advancing rapidly. Whether the victim of trauma, birth defects or other causes, prosthetics using 3D printed technology are only going to become more amazing – and cheaper – as time goes on.