Addressing a need by printing prosthetics (first appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

Losing a hand, digits, or limbs can sometimes be viewed as unfortunate accidents or the traumatic consequences of life in war-torn regions. However, estimates suggest that major (amputation above the elbow, below the elbow, above the knee, below the knee, or the foot) or minor (amputation of the hand, fingers, or toes) limb loss occurs more often than we realize in the general population. According to separate reports, almost 2 million people lived with limb loss in the USA and hospital expenses associated with amputations totaled $8.3 billion in 2009. A small fraction of the cost could possibly be attributed to treatment of 1,715 US soldiers (as of December 2012) who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan or congenital limb deficiencies. Based on a 2008 report, the remaining amputations were mostly caused by vascular disease (54%) – including diabetes and peripheral arterial disease – trauma (45%) and cancer (less than 2%). The percentage of non-traumatic lower limb amputations in diabetics increased to more than 60%, according to data from the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet. Moreover, it is estimated that up to 55% of diabetic amputees will require amputation of the second leg within 2‐3 years.

Globally, one amputation occurs every 30 seconds. In addition, The International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that at least 0.5% of populations in developing countries and other regions are in need of prostheses or orthotics and related services. Prosthetic devices can range from basic walking support for lower-limb amputees to state-of-the-art devices mimicking human movement, enabling amputees to navigate rough terrain, climb stairs, or perform athletic feats. Physical and societal obstacles, leadership and governance, service delivery, human resources, production, and affordability are key barriers to assisting amputees.

While the WHO made suggestions to overcome these barriers, it means that in practice considerable time would have elapsed before people like Richard Van As in South Africa and limbless children in the Sudan obtained access to affordable prostheses. Van As, a master carpenter, lost four of his fingers in a work accident and collaborated with others to make mechanical fingers (using a 3D printer). Richard has since expanded theRobohand project to making mechanical fingers for people with congenital deformities or who have lost their digits. Similarly, Not Impossible’s Mick Ebeling gave hope to Sudanese child amputees (through Project Daniel) by setting up a 3D-printing prosthetics lab and facility in that country.

State-of-the-art prosthetics may simply be beyond the pocket books of many amputees. Could Project Daniel and the efforts of the Open Prosthetics Project be replicated in other low- or middle-income countries where disabled people may have inadequate health insurance? In those cases, low-cost 3D-printers (such as a prototype currently in development in Togo or the printrbotPLUS) could conceivably be used to print replacement digits while awaiting evaluation by a medical professional. While amputees in poor countries and elsewhere await government support, ordinary folks will likely continue to fill an important need and inspire others through their actions.

Enabling the future by printing prosthetics

Passionate people fulfilling a good mission are not the immediate stuff of headlines. However, a group of volunteers deserve a shout-out for 3D-printing prosthetics that can help disabled people across the globe. Read more about them here:

Reading about them, also reminded me of a 3D-printing show that I summarized some time ago in The Norwalk Patch:

MacGyver, an American action-adventure hero from an eighties TV-series, usually solved his problems with duct tape and a Swiss-army knife. Today, designers and inventors can replicate these objects and numerous other products with the aid of three-dimensional (3D) scanners and 3D-printers. Motion-sensing devices such as Microsoft’s Kinect, a webcam-style add-on computer peripheral, or Fuel3D’s handheld 3D-scanner (one of a growing number of devices using lasers, lights, or x-rays), can be used to capture the geometry of physical objects, including oneself. The recent 3D Printshow in New York featured the genius of Joshua Harker, a pioneer in art and 3D-printing, and different companies willing to transform the ideas of at-home tinkerers into digital models. A quick Google search revealed that 3D-scanners can range from $400 to almost $85,000. It might also be worth waiting for the release of a functional 3D-scanning accessory for the iPad. According to Wired magazine, average Joes may soon be able to capture the dimensions of a room and generate 360-degree panoramic photos or create any other digital representation of the real world using the Structure Sensor.

Alternatively, 3D-aficianados (architects, designers, builders, makers and engineers), may use SketchUp, Adobe Photoshop CC (which has buttons for 3D-printing) or other appropriate software to create digital models from scratch. Others may prefer downloading shared files from Thingiverse. The next step for the cost-conscious inventor would be to find a third-party outlet or reasonably-priced machine to transform computer files into physical models. Shapeways, 3D Hubs, and i.Materialise belong to the cottage industry of 3D-printing services offered at a reasonable price to creative types. “Soup-to-nuts” consumers may also wish to read 3D Printing for Dummies or take classes at places like 3D Heights to gain insights about the printing process. Typically, an object is printedby repetitively solidifying or binding a liquid or powder in horizontal cross-sections where solid material is desired. The layering is repeated until the entire object is completed throughout its vertical dimension. Side-by-side comparisons of 24 3D-printers can be viewed on the TopTenReviews site and kits for assembling affordable printers are in development or already available e.g., printrbot.

Printing ideas into reality at the push of a button can unlock limitless creativity and also open up a Pandora’s Box of security and copyright infringement concerns. Fortunately, the US Senate just approved a 10-year extension on a ban on plastic guns invisible to metal detectors. Applying copyright infringement laws to this evolving technology may prove tricky, but John Hornick may be on to something in stating that iTunes-like models for copyrighted computer-aided design files could potentially make printing legal copies easy and economical.