Is 3D Printing Changing the World of Prosthetics and Orthotics?

3D printing is one of the fastest growing industries at the moment. It seems that almost every day people are finding new applications for this technology, especially within the medical field. 3D printing boasts the ability to create complex designs quickly and for prices much lower than ever before. With prosthetists and orthotists requiring custom plastic molds every day, this could revolutionize the business. By scanning residual limbs and using a 3D printer to create a socket, prosthetists would be able to offer patients potentially better-fitting devices the same day of the scan, without going through a middleman. While it has its advantages, there are reasons that technology has not already put prosthetics/orthotics manufacturers out of business.

Current 3D-printed prosthetics may spend more time under repair than being used day-to-day. That’s because the materials used for printing are not durable enough for legitimate use. Most jobs are printed using polylactic acid, an extremely light material that makes it possible to attach 3D-printed hands to the body using nothing more than Velcro straps. While lightweight is good, it also means that they are not strong enough to support any significant weight [1].  Even when using more expensive, durable materials than polylactic acid, 3D-printers work by laying down thin layers of hot plastic. So, when a force is applied parallel to the direction that the layers were laid down, the printed object is strong, but when a force is applied perpendicular to the layers, the device is weaker and subject to cracking [2]. While there are certain materials that are strong enough to overcome this issue, they are so expensive that the process is no longer cheaper than the old-fashioned method.

All of this being said, the technology is exciting, and could have a greater impact in the future. Right now, the technology is useful for generating model prostheses that are not meant to stand up to everyday wear and tear. In some cases, 3D-printed products can be useful for kids who quickly outgrow their devices and cannot afford to invest in something more expensive that won’t fit a month later. Some successful applications have also been seen in scoliosis braces offering more appealing aesthetics and increased comfort [3].

The bottom line though is that we must be realistic about the uses of 3D-printing in the field of prosthetics and orthotics. 3D-printed materials are not at the point that they can replace current devices to be used every day, but hopefully they can in the future, saving patients money, time, and discomfort.

Guest Blogger – A. Allen

 

 

  1. (http://gizmodo.com/can-open-source-3d-printing-make-custom-prostheses-affo-1707392769)
  2. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/11/the-reality-of-3d-printed-robo-hands.html
  3. (http://www.cnet.com/news/3d-printing-makes-scoliosis-braces-more-sleek-comfortable/)

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