E-NABLE, Create Orthotics and others have shown us the value of 3D printed prosthetics. Desktop 3D printers allow for the creation of low-cost personalized prosthetics, even traditionally high-cost bionic prosthetics. The problem with prosthetics has always been that they had to be handmade in order for the socket to fit well and for the prosthetic to be the right size. The prosthetic industry also became a regulated affair with high margins. Prosthetic makers charged $1,000 for a prosthetic, the importer and distributor would double that amount, the fitting company would double it once again and the health provider would double it once more and the insurance company would get charged $10,000 or more for it. Various 3D printing startups are changing this landscape by fitting and printing the prosthetic directly. In addition to 3D printing’s ability to make a prosthetic that has the required fit and function, the fact that they are disrupting the prosthetics industry by making the prosthetic directly is the most interesting thing happening here. In a similar vein many medical industries may be disrupted by 3D printing, not only through the power of our technology, but also through directly selling products to consumers or vendors.
Protosthetics uses several modified LulzBot 3D printers in Fargo, North Dakota to print out sockets and legs, as well as work on prosthetic hands/arms. The company lets people upload 3D scans to them or buy 3D scanners to make their own scans for prosthetics or orthotics. The company also makes the Amphibian Leg, a modular below-the-knee prosthetic made for outdoor activities and things such as swimming. It is meant as an alternative to using your primary leg prosthetic in a way that could damage it. The Amphibian is 3D printed and has some Ninjaflex parts on it.
Josh Teigen of Protosthetics said:
“The benefit of having the LulzBot 3D printers for us has really been the fact that not only are they a high-quality, very robust machine to start with but the community and the Open Source nature have allowed us to basically build on top of that and incorporate our own characteristics and functionality. Having the support behind that has been one of the biggest keys to our success as a manufacturer in being able to actually deliver clinically relevant products to our customers.”
“I think that’s actually one of the biggest reasons that we went with LulzBot 3D printers versus some of the other printers out there is just the reliability and the uptime.”
There is currently a lot going on in 3D printed prosthetics in both polymers and metals. Small innovative companies are offering cost-effective prosthetic solutions directly to hospitals, patients or fitters. 3D printing can make tough and durable unique prosthetics that are much less expensive than those the industry currently makes. For health systems wanting to save money or patients who want a unique design 3D printing is becoming a real alternative to traditional methods.
The fit and finish of 3D printed parts still has to be improved as well as the build volumes of desktop machines. For such manufacturing applications a large reliable 3D printer with a lot of uptime and high repeatability would be required. Out of the hundreds of desktop 3D printers on offer today only very few could be used in such manufacturing applications. Future revenues and industrialization projects for print farms are therefore limited in the number of vendors they can work with. One would expect many 3D printer companies to want to increase the reliability and quality of their systems so they can cater to the growing number of industrial companies using 3D printing to manufacture.
LulzBot 3D printers have found use in other medical cases, often helped along, as Teigen pointed out, by the company’s well-known open source ethos that now extends to materials as well as hardware and software. You can read more about Protoshetics’ use case here.[Images: Protosthetics]