R&D Aspects of 3D Printed Prosthetics

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A prosthetic is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part. The most commonly known type of prosthetic is limb prostheses, but other types such as craniofacial prostheses and intra-oral prostheses help people as well. Those who benefit from prosthetics include war veterans, people who suffer from physical traumas, and those who have congenitally malformed or missing limbs. A prosthetic needs to be customized to a patient’s body, allowing it to be as naturally fitting as possible.

3D printing has been transforming prosthetics by reducing production costs and making them widely available and easily accessible. It allows growing children to easily have prosthetics that grow with them at a more reasonable cost. 3D printing of prosthetics has also been revolutionizing third-world countries where technology is not advanced, allowing impoverished and war-torn communities to more easily access prosthetics. Companies and organizations that are developing and working to spread the technology of 3D printing prosthetics are eligible for federal research and development tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.


The world’s first 3D printed mechanical hand was co-created by Ivan Owen and a carpenter from South Africa named Richard who was looking to help a little boy named Liam who was born without fingers on his right hand. After creating the first prototype of the prosthetic hand for Liam, Owen realized that he would quickly grow out of the model and began researching how he could 3D print prosthetics for Liam as he grew. After teaching himself 3D printer design software and receiving two donated 3D printers from a private company, Owen and Richard 3D printed the first mechanical hand and sent it to Liam. Instead of patenting the design, Owen decided to publish it on the public domain Thingiverse, in hopes that others would be able to print the design and improve it. Owen’s design grew in publicity and the e-NABLE community was created–an online group where thousands of people share prosthetic designs and 3D print them for free for those “in need of a hand.”

Variable Impedance Prosthetic

[Photo: David Sengeh]

During his time at the MIT Media Lab David Sengeh, an MIT PhD graduate, wanted to focus his research on how to improve prosthetics. After interviewing a number of people who use prosthetics in his hometown of Sierra Leone, Africa, Sengeh discovered that people were not using their prosthetics due to the discomfort it caused in their limbs from the hard material and excess pressure. Sengeh invented a 3D printed prosthetic socket made out of multiple materials and structured for pressure relief to increase socket comfort for amputees. The 3D printed socket, called the Variable Impedance Prosthetic (VIPr) increases socket comfort while maintaining structural integrity. By 3D printing the socket, the design is highly customized to the patient through mathematical software that spatially maps bone tissue depth of the limb.

3D Printed Safeguards

The Super Bowl 50 was the debut of 3D printed technology used on the field during an NFL game. After Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis broke his arm during a previous game he vowed to not let it stop him from playing in his first Super Bowl, looking to 3D printed technology for support. Whiteclouds and 3D Elite were able to design and print a custom sleeve to support the metal plate and screws that were holding Davis’ broken arm together. Here is a classic example of 3D printing being used to benefit and improve human beings in their physical capabilities.

Infinite Socket

One of the widespread problems that prosthetic users encounter is discomfort in the socket. This happens because traditional sockets are made in a single piece of plastic molded to a user’s limb in the present moment. This can be problematic because limbs are constantly changing in volume and pressure throughout the day, so sockets that are molded to a user at one point might not be ideal for them a few hours later. The San Francisco based company LIM Innovations has come up with a solution to this problem by creating a socket made of many different components that allows for adjusting throughout the day. Their 3D printed product, called the Infinite Socket, includes many different buckles, straps, and pressure-relieving systems to give prosthetic users the comfort they need throughout the day. LIM Innovations decided to make their products via 3D printing for its affordability and quickness in producing small and unique components that can come together easily.

Limbitless Solutions

[Photo: Limbitless Solutions]

Another company that is expanding the impact of 3D printing for the prosthetics community is Limbitless Solutions from Florida. Limbitless is composed of a team of graduates and students from the University of Central Florida who 3D print and provide bionic arms for children at no cost. They are able to do this through sponsorship and donations. Each component of the arm takes a set amount of time to print and the team then uses an electromyography sensor system for the user to be able to move the arm. With children constantly growing, the company is able to easily 3D print parts that easily adjust to the child’s growth with the elbow being the most frequently resized component and taking 4 hours to print.


There is no doubt that the prosthetics industry has greatly benefitted from the use of 3D printers. Old-fashioned prosthetics are very cumbersome and are unable to provide comfort for prosthetic users to wear their equipment for long periods of time. With 3D printing technology, prosthetics are now more cost efficient, highly customized to a user for comfort, and better at adjusting and fitting to a child’s growing body.


Charles Goulding and Rafaella July of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing applications for prosthetics.


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