How 3D Printing Is Transforming Lives with Better Fitting, and Better Looking, Prosthetics
Christopher Hutchison’s world was turned upside down in July 2009 when he was just 17 years old.
The Swiss teenager, recently graduated from a high school in Geneva, was standing on platform at a railway station, leaning against the open window of a train and chatting with friends when suddenly the train pulled away without warning. He tumbled into the gap and was crushed between the train and the platform. The injuries he sustained from the accident resulted in the amputation of both legs: below the knee on the left, and above the knee on the right. After months of recovery, Hutchison was finally ready to get fitted with prosthetic legs so that he could learn to walk again. The arduous process involved having his residual limb covered in plaster to make a cast, then using that plaster cast to create a model. That model was the basis for the final plastic socket, which required numerous rounds of fitting and adjustments.
For patients like Hutchison, the traditional process of designing the prosthetic limb so that it fits properly and can effectively support a person’s body weight can take weeks, and the end product is often uncomfortable or even painful. Which in turn, makes the entire prosthetic limb difficult to use.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are about 30 million amputees around the world — four out of five live in the developing world, and many have no access to prosthetics. A new prosthetic leg can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $50,000, and high-end options can cost up to $100,000. And these are not one-off purchases: Even top-of-the-line prosthetics typically have to be replaced after only three to five years of wear and tear, and even more frequently for growing children. Even if one can afford the thousands of dollars, WHO estimates there is a shortage of 40,000 trained prosthetists to meet the demand.
Reinventing prosthetic manufacturing
A few years after he was first fitted with his prosthetics, Hutchison’s legs swelled while he was on a long-haul flight, causing his prosthetic sockets to tighten. Blood was flowing into his legs, but not circulating out.
“I was pretty much feeling the same pain that Christopher was feeling and sweating just as much,” said his father Alan in a TEDx talk in 2017. “And so we started to talk about how sockets are made.”
The experience inspired the father and son pair to create ProsFit in 2013. Alan drew on knowledge gained from his graduate degree in mechanical and structural engineering, as well as past experience working with a professor who was developing a knee implant with computer-aided design technology. They looked into advances in 3D printing technology, including HP Jet Fusion printers, that are reinventing how prosthetics are made.
Based in Bulgaria, ProsFit uses HP Jet Fusion 3D printing technology to transform the prosthetic fitting and manufacturing process, designing customized sockets for a more comfortable and faster fit. These prosthetics that fit more precisely, are custom-designed for the wearer and are more affordable, without requiring the physical presence of a prosthetist.
Rapid improvements in 3D scanning technology, which is critical to the process of 3D printing prosthetics, have also helped to speed the process up and drive costs down. A face scanner costing $100,000 two decades ago can cost as little as $500 today, making it cheaper to custom-fit 3D printed headgear or eyewear. And scanners are being built into smartphones as high-megapixel cameras become increasingly affordable, making it even easier to create 3D scans to capture precise measurements for the final product, which is 3D printed using a robust thermoplastic at the push of a button.
“You can basically do a 3D selfie,” says Lee Dockstader, director of vertical development for HP’s 3D printing businesses.
Cheaper, faster, better
Companies such as ProsFit in Europe and Unlimited Tomorrow in the U.S. recognize the potential of relatively recent technological developments that make it efficient and economically feasible to take 3D printed prosthetics to a large-scale, industrial level. Beyond the 3D printing technology, or additive manufacturing, the quality of printed materials has improved, as have the size and complexity of printed products. Production time has also been slashed, reducing turnaround from weeks to a matter of days.
Such advancements have the potential to dramatically increase the number of people who can access quality prosthetics. “When you drive the part cost down and make the ease of access easier, it drives adoption up,” says Dockstader.
Unlimited Tomorrow uses HP Multi Jet Fusion printers to produce custom artificial prosthetic devices at an affordable cost, making advanced artificial limbs accessible to remote and underprivileged communities. Meanwhile ProsFit leverages the new technologies to produce and supply prosthetic devices all around the world, including hard-to-reach places and war-torn conflict zones, where there are few prosthetists and technicians. Recently, ProsFit sent a prosthetist to a conflict zone in the Middle East to train physiotherapists on how to scan limbs. Those scans were then uploaded onto PandoFit, a cloud-based software developed by ProsFit, and a qualified prosthetist then worked on socket designs remotely.
The offerings from companies like ProsFit and Unlimited Tomorrow are changing the calculus around prosthetics manufacturing and are set to improve millions of lives in the process. But there is also the opportunity for customization and personalization on an individual scale.
For Christophe Debard, an amputee since age 13 as a result of cancer, 3D printing is making possible a years-long goal: producing unique prosthetics that make a statement of personal identity.
For years, Debard, an engineer at Airbus based in Toulouse, France, had met people who felt uncomfortable revealing their prosthetics. “They prefer to hide it,” he says, “wearing long pants even in the summer.” For too many people, he says, prosthetics send a message of weakness and disability, or evoke pity and discomfort.
The problem with prosthetics, Debard thought, is that they often try, unsuccessfully, to look like a real limb. “It gives others the impression that you want to hide it, but everybody can see that it’s not real,” he says.
The solution he eventually came up with was Print My Leg, a project he founded to create personalized prosthetic covers that are functional and beautiful.
"Disability is not a synonym for weakness.”
Christophe Debard, Print My Leg founder
Using a 3D scanner, Debard takes a scan of an amputee’s intact leg to approximate a similar leg volume for the prosthetic limb. He then designs interchangeable covers to envelop the prosthetic leg, giving it a fuller look. Next, the covers are customized with unique designs and decorations –– leaves for the plant enthusiast, for example, or a geometric pattern. The hull, or cover, is then then 3D printed using an HP Multi Jet Fusion printer.
When Debard wore his first open-source prosthetic, illuminated with a swoosh of electroluminescent paint to create a glowing, eye-catching aesthetic, he noticed that kids began to approach him with a warm curiosity, rather than fear and discomfort.
“The difference is big because they come and they ask you questions in a really different way,” he says.
Now, Debard’s goal is to make this customization process more widely accessible. He plans to collaborate with e-NABLE, a movement and global network of volunteers who are using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to create free 3D printed upper-limb prosthetics for those in need, particularly in underserved communities.
“I wanted to find a solution,” says Debard. “Disability is not a synonym for weakness, it is rather an opportunity for me.”