Designing and 3DPrinting Prosthetic Limbs

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A hot topic in the additive manufacturing field is the impact that 3D Printing Services are having on the design and development of prosthetic limbs. Leading the way in this field are non-profit ventures e-NABLE, a network of 3-D printing volunteers, and Not Impossible Labs, out of Venice, California; who have harnessed the power of crowd sourced 3-D design and altruistic sponsorship to change the lives of those in need of prosthetics the world over.

E-NABLE began in May 2013 and was inspired by the story of a prop maker from the US and a carpenter from South Africa, who came together from thousands of miles apart to create a prosthetic hand device for a child in South Africa. With a successfully printed hand they decided to offer the design plans for free on an open source platform to make it available to those in need. What started out as one prosthetic hand design and the contribution of 70 volunteers has now grown into a network of over 3,000 medical professionals, artists, designers, teachers, engineers, and students. Global contributors iterate and improve upon open sourced designs using such modeling tools as openSCADSketchUPSolidworks and Rhino, to create the colorful and lightweight 3-D printed hands at a fraction of the cost of traditionally designed medical grade prosthetic limbs. With the aid of social networking tools e-NABLE has created a crowd sourcing approach to bolster the research and development of web-based applications to generate hand designs, experiment with printing materials such as Othoplastics, search for low cost myoelectric devices, and the continual redesigning of new and improved devices.

These strides in prosthetic design are in debt to the ‘do-it-yourself’ approach of 3D printing technology which is rapidly changing people’s lives in ways previously unimagined. Traditional prosthetic limbs are very expensive, and must be custom designed and fitted by a doctor. The cost is very significant particularly for children who outgrow prosthetic limbs very quickly and need upgrades almost annually. In a recent article for The Daily Beast, Jen Owen, a member of e-NABLE, noted: “If a parent wanted to purchase a 3-D printer of their own and produce hands for their own child, the cost of the printer and the materials to make the hands for their child for the next 10 years would be less than the cost of the creation of one commercially made prosthetic device.”
Now e-NABLE is staring to enter schools, classrooms and additive manufacturing groups to generate excitement for science, math, and engineering, and teach students how to use 3-D printers. E-NABLE and Not Impossible Labs hope to initiate outreach missions to bring 3-D printers to under served nations.
By 2013, Not Impossible’s CEO and founder Mick Ebeling created what they are calling the “world’s first 3-D printing prosthetic lab and training facility,” in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. At first, Mr. Ebeling was able restore hope and independence to a 14 year old, Daniel, who lost both limbs to war related violence. ‘Project Daniel‘ strives to teach any person to use the technology and hopes to make a lasting impact in the war torn South Sudan region, which is estimated to have at least 50,000 amputees. By providing them with these tools, they are supplied with an opportunity to regain the independence and empowerment that they lost with their unfortunate tragedy.

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