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The Future of Prosthetics??

A National Public Radio (NPR) story has brought attention to 3-D printing and the world of prosthetics.

Prosthetic limbs are tricky for any age patient and especially for children.  First, prosthetics are expensive and the growing child needs new prosthetics on a regular basis due to growth.  Second, prosthetics can be a challenge to use.  Kids typically have basic prosthetics (in part due to cost) rather than some of the fancier prosthetics that we have come to see on TV related to the recent wars.  The technology of this new level of prosthetics is amazing.  Kids, however, rarely if ever have access to this type of prosthetic.  The final issue is sensation.  Prosthetics do not have feeling and often kids are more comfortable and more functional with their natural limb (of differing lengths and presence/ absence of fingers) than they are with a prosthetic limb that does have feeling.  A recent study pooled a large number of kids from different Shriners Hospitals and questioned the routine use of prosthetics in kids.  Michelle James, MD, at the Northern California Shriners Hospital led this impactful study.

Recently, technology has provided a low cost prosthetic option.  As the story above details, Makerbot is the company the makes a 3-D printer.
This printer is not cheap (I believe around $2500) but it can make inexpensive prosthetics (reportedly less than 150 dollars).  The following link shows the Robohand which is made on the 3-D printer- the plans for such devices are either free or very inexpensive as detailed.

These prosthetic hands are really exciting because they are inexpensive, can be remade when the child grows, and they do offer functional abilities.  However, because of the lack of feeling, the child must be watching to use the hand.  This prosthetic depends on wrist motion to power the digits (so that if you extend the wrist- bend backward- the fingers flex- make a fist.  If you bend the wrist down, the fingers extend).  These are still very early times with such prosthetics and it is really exciting to dream about what the future will bring.

I was lucky enough today to meet a family working on the Robohand.  The following pictures show the parts which were made for < 10 dollars.  The prosthesis is still being made but I can’t  express how exciting this was to see and hold.  Dad had access to the 3D printer at work, got the plans online, and made the parts…

Robohand with pieces outlining hand.

3D printer at Washington University.  Note the spool of Blue and Black material which is the printed substance (shown prior to preparation via machine)

A second 3D printer at Washington University. 

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