Can You Really Print Artificial Limbs?

What may have once sounded like science fiction, such as the possibility of printing an artificial limb at your local library, is now a very tangible reality thanks to 3D printing technology. Over one billion people worldwide have a disability and require assistive devices. With exciting advancements in medical technology, 3D printing has the potential to provide these people with the devices they need, ranging from a cup holder that attaches to a wheelchair to a prosthetic hand, conveniently and at an affordable cost.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

The idea behind 3D printing technology is very similar to that of traditional printing, only with a 3-dimensional layered effect. You begin with a virtual template of the item to be printed. This can range from something as simple as a 3D shape such as a cube or sphere to something as complex and intricate as an artificial limb. Once the digital template is created, a 3D printer can follow the pattern exactly to create a 3-dimensional, real-life version of the virtual image using melted filaments of material.

Dr. Julielynn Wong, founder of 3D4MD and a pioneer in 3D printing of medical devices in harsh environments, has created a library of 3D printing templates for medical devices to help make high-quality devices much more easily accessible. In fact, Dr. Wong was the first to 3D print medical supplies at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulation of life on Mars. She also designed a solar-powered mobile 3D printing system that can be transported in a carry-on suitcase to produce medical supplies in remote, off-grid communities (Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance).

“I believe that a 3D printer will become the doctor’s bag of the future,” says Wong in a comprehensive video explaining how 3D4MD hopes and plans to positively impact one billion lives using innovative 3D printing technology.

What Are the Medical Benefits of 3D Printing?

Although artificial limbs are currently commercially produced, the cost of one of these devices can range from $5,000 to $50,000. Thus, many people who are in dire need of such a device are unable to afford them. This is especially true for many families with children who need artificial limbs, as a new device is repeatedly needed as the child grows. With 3D printing, however, simplified prosthetic hands, arms and legs can be printed by almost any 3D printer for $50 or less in material costs (PBS). As a result, millions of people who are currently unable to afford life-changing medical devices would have convenient, fast, and affordable access to this cutting-edge technology and the devices they need.

Implications for the Future

3D printing technology is just one excellent and inspiring example of the medical innovation that’s not only possible but very much within our grasp. Thanks to researchers and innovators like Dr. Wong, millions of people in need of assistive devices will be able to gain a new lease on life. And the possibilities don’t stop there. Ongoing research to study the use of 3D printers to create life-saving organs and tissues is currently underway (Nature Biotechnology). This could significantly reduce or even completely eliminate the need for living organ and tissue donation, as well as minimize the risk of complications associated with organ donation.

We live in an exciting time of rapid technological advancements and innovations such as 3D printing for medical devices, even in barren climates such as the one Dr. Wong experienced at the Mars Desert Research Station. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can become involved in the life-changing work that 3D4MD is doing, sign up to join the Medical Makers Program.