Prosthetic technology sprints ahead

The charity e-NABLE is backlogged with thousands of requests 3D-printed prosthetic hands for people in need all over the world. Since they began operating in the spring of 2013, their network of volunteers has grown to over 5,000, who together have helped produce over 1,500 prosthetic hands that were given away at no cost to children, veterans, and the disabled. e-NABLE is now asking the 3D printing community to crowdsource the largest donation of 3D printed hands in the organization’s history: 1000 Raptor hands by September 15. (The design specs and assembly instructions are available for free online.)

Prosthetics are advancing incredibly, and they promise a better quality of life for people around the world, both rich and poor. Broadly speaking, there are two R&D routes. The high-price approach uses advanced technology to create the most life-like customized artificial limbs possible. For example, top-of-the-line prostheses incorporate microprocessors that work with onboard gyroscopes, accelerometers, and hydraulics to enable a person to walk with a normal gait. (Hugh Herr, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group and a double-amputee, gave an insightful TED talk in March 2014 on this topic.) Since these prostheses can cost over $50,000, they are largely aimed at users in the developed world.

By contrast, the cheaper approach involves simplification and standardization, and increasingly relies on 3-D printing. In particular, amputees in developing countries will greatly benefit as functional neurologically-controlled artificial limbs become affordable for the first time ever. Children in need will reap major benefits as well. Currently, pricey prostheses are usually purchased for adults, since children outgrow them so quickly and multiple replacements would often be budget-breaking.

To read the rest of this article, published in Boulin News.