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3D printing slash the cost of prosthetics

3D printed prosthetics are bringing affordable options to people missing a limb. Image credit: Unlimited Tomorrow

The cost of a prosthetic limb may well approach and exceed 100,000$, depending on the sophistication. Additionally, customising a prosthetic limb requires several visits with a specialised doctor and follow up visits to make sure the limb fits as it should and to learn using it. Moreover, the cost of a prosthetic limb has to take into account its maintenance and replacement (usually every 5 years) and that multiplies the original cost.

A few companies are looking at ways to sharply decrease the overall cost using advanced technology. The ongoing war in Ukraine has resulted in loss of lives and even more loss of limbs in both military and civilian population. This has become a testing “lab” for these new prosthetic technologies (watch the clip).
By using advanced scanning technologies companies like Unlimited Tomorrow can create a perfectly fitting prosthetic limb without having to have the receiving person on their premises. As shown in the clip, 3D scanning was used to create a digital replica of the stump and this digital replica was used by Unlimited Tomorrow to 3D print the prosthetic. The receiving person will have to learn to use it, that is to use the muscle of the stump to communicate to the prosthetic his intention. The prosthetic has 36 sensors embedded in the part covering the stump and these sensors pick up the movements of muscles translating them into movements (the interpretation and the commands to the various actuators, such as the ones moving the fingers to grab an apple are managed by a computer embedded in the prosthetics).

By adopting these approaches and technologies they have been able to slash the cost down to 10,000$.

At the same time prosthetics will become more and more capable to mimic the real limb to the point that some are foreseeing, within the next 10 years, the availability of bionic limbs, made up with soft robotics, that on the one hand will look like the real thing and on the other hand may provide augmented capabilities. This might lead, according to some, to a new market of body parts replacements, first responding to the need of those who have lost all or part of the functionality of an organ, then becoming a sort of preventative healthcare (change your hand before the arthritis makes it useless) and finally providing augmented capabilities (augmented humans).

It is a science fiction scenario that is now seriously discussed by scientists and with research turning “fiction” into “industry”.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.