The Successes and Failures of 3D Printed Prosthetics

The Successes and Failures of 3D Printed Prosthetics

By Heidi Reidel

The 3D printing industry has expanded rapidly over the last few years, with one of its most notable areas of application being the health and medical industry. Innovations include printing everything from medications to human organs, but perhaps the most commercially successful so far has been prosthetics. While 3D printing prosthetics allows amputees to get a hold of products for thousands of dollars less than traditional prosthetics, the methods and materials used are raising concerns.

Successes of 3D Printed Prosthetics

3D printed prosthetics can greatly benefit children. The average lifespan of a prosthetic is five years, but in that time a child grows so rapidly that they will need a new prosthetic much more frequently. According to a statement made by the American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association, the average prosthetic costs between $1,500 to $8,000. This expense is often paid out of pocket rather than covered by insurance. By contrast, a 3D printed prosthetic costs as little as $50!

3D printed prosthetics can also be made much quicker; a limb can be made in a day. Furthermore, consumers can easily customize their purchases, which is another enticing factor for kids. Children can pick out colors and styles to fit their wants and needs.

Traditional vs 3D Printed Materials

Like traditional prosthetics, 3D printed prosthetics are composed mainly of plastic. Traditional prosthetics use polypropylene, polyethylene, acrylics, and polyurethane. There is also an internal structure called a pylon that is composed of a lightweight materials such as titanium, aluminum, or carbon fiber.

3D printed prosthetics use materials such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastics or for s stronger material, Bridge nylon. 3D printers are becoming compatible with other materials like lightweight titanium to increase durability and strength. A research team in Belgium successfully implanted the first 3D printed titanium mandibular prosthesis, using a laser to melt thin layers of titanium powders. The FDA  approved a 3D printed polyetherketoneketone (PEKK) skull implant, which was successfully implanted by Oxford Performance Materials (OPM).

Another company called LayerWise, now 3D Systems,  manufactures 3D printed titanium orthopedic, maxillofacial, spinal, and dental implants. An anatomically correct 3D printed prosthetic ear, capable of detecting electromagnetic frequencies, was created using silicon, chondrocytes, and silver nanoparticles. Implants are even beginning to be printed with live cells.

Failures of 3D Printed Prosthetics

E-NABLE is a company that provides customers with affordable prosthetics through volunteers with 3D printers. Though their products are cheap, customizable, and quickly made, they have run into problems with durability. Their volunteers are not professional prosthetists, who undergo years of training, and every product is not FDA tested and approved. Therefore, the products break far more often than traditional prosthetics.  

3D printed prosthetics are created by thin layers of hot plastic, so when pulled the wrong way, they can break very easily. Volunteer printers also take time to learn the proper way to regulate temperature, which can lead to cracks in the finished product.

Overcoming the Challenges

After running into these problems, an e-NABLE volunteer teamed up with a UK based engineer, Steve Wood, to develop something more durable and flexible. They used a material called Filaflex to create a successful prosthetic, but the finished product costs closer to $2,000, which, compared to most e-NABLE products, is a lot. However, it is still cheaper than most traditional prosthetics.

Professionals have perfected traditional prosthetic designs over many years, and will be difficult to replace overnight. Yet, 3D printed prosthetics are providing a much needed service for amputees who don’t possess the income to purchase a professionally made prosthetic, and especially for children, who outgrow prosthetics more readily. Methods and materials will be improved and refined over time and International Data Corporation (IDC) reported that 3D printing for medical implants and devices is growing market share nearly 13% in 2020 and 15% for dental.

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