Sunday, May 4, 2014

DIY PROSTHETICS: The Innovation 3D Printing is bringing to Health Technology


Printing your own prosthetics might seem like a far-off futuristic notion however recent innovations in 3D printing is making this a reality.  As a Northwestern University pre-med turned technology consultant, I have been researching this exciting technology and included ways in which you can be a part of how it will change the availability of prosthetic devices to those in need.

3D Printed hand and arm prosthetics have already been produced by Robohand, a South African company founded by finger amputee Richard van As.  Van As came up with the idea to print his own prosthetic after he was shocked at the prices of such devices listed by manufacturers.   Robohand can print a full adult hand for as little as $2,000 compared with the manufacturer’s price which starting in the tens of thousands of dollars.  It also provides open source designs, so anyone with such printers can print their own fingers, hands, or arms. 

   American Mick Ebling sets up a project in South Sudan to provide refugees with printed prosthetics.

At the consumer level, 3D printers are widely available. Small machines can be as affordable as $100 and larger high end machines run into the thousands.  Along with the printer itself, consumers need 3D design software or a 3D scanner as well as physical substance to feed into the machine.   Although the smaller, cheaper printers that are gaining popularity among consumers are incapable of printing industrial quality products such as prosthetics, the future is promising.  Tech industry analyst giant Gartner predicts that 3D printers are entering a new growth stage and consumers will begin to see higher quality printers at lower prices. 

In researching this topic, I have found three things you should do to become a part of this innovation.  They are: 
  • Examine 3D printers.  Check out your nearest 3D printer such as Makerbot to see the machine in all its industrial-quality action. 
  • Try it yourself!  Order an affordable printer or use a friend’s to familiarize yourself with operating the technology.
  • Communicate.  Talk to your patients and colleagues about the benefits that such technology can provide on a micro and macro level.  This will foster a welcoming environment for continued innovations in medical-related 3D printing as well as health tech in general. 

As more health care professionals and health tech enthusiasts embrace 3D printing as a prosthetic alternative to traditional manufacturing, more people will be able to afford and access devices that will greatly improve their quality of life.  

Molly Cruz is a Northwestern University undergraduate currently working as a Tech Consultant for Rand McNally Atlases.  She will be graduating this June and relocating to Berlin, Germany where she will be working in Product Management for a tech start-up in preventative medicine.  She can be reached via Twitter at @digitalraccoon.  








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